Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Bonus

While I was still employed, I was a member of the company social club. The social club was the group that arranged employee social functions throughout the year; mainly the annual company picnic and the two annual Christmas parties (one for adults only and one for the employees' kids). The social club booked the halls and provided the gifts and refreshments for these functions. Since these things cost money, the social club was funded via payroll deduction; three dollars was deducted from each paycheck of each employee belonging to the social club.

At Christmas time, each employee would receive a free turkey courtesy of the company. This was the annual Christmas bonus, and it was provided not by the social club but by the company's owners. As the company is now being liquidated, there is, of course, no staff Christmas party (adult or childrens') this year, nor are there any free turkeys.

Since the social club had been collecting its membership dues for most of the year and didn't pay for any staff Christmas functions, it found itself with a surplus of cash on its hands when the company shut down. To their credit, the social club executive decided that the only fair thing to do was to distribute the remaining monies evenly among the remaining membership (those who were still in the company's employ when it finally failed). And so it was that I received in the mail earlier this week a check from the social club in the amount of just over five hundred dollars.

Ironically, it appears that the best Christmas bonus that I ever received came after the company had shut down. God bless us every one!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Advantages of Holiday Unemployment

I'm an optimist. I try to look at the positive side of every situation. Smile, and the world smiles with you; cry, and you cry alone. I tend to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. "Always look on the bright side of life," that's my motto (whistle-whistle whistle-whistle). So I'm here today to tell you that Christmas or, rather, the month before Christmas, is a great time to lose your job.

Christmas shopping was a snap this year. I kept going to the malls on Tuesday mornings, while everybody else was at work. It's great (if you can overlook the lack of money thing, that is). The store merchants are genuinely glad to see you at 10:15 am on a Tuesday. They actually looked bored until I came along. I didn't think that happened this time of year.

In fact, everything about Christmas was a snap this year. This is the first year that I didn't get at all stressed out about decorating, shopping, wrapping and all the other miscellaneous preparations that come with Christmas. I had nothing but time on my hands. No pressure at all. My Austrian relatives will actually receive Christmas cards from me on or around Christmas time this year! That'll be a first!

There was no company Christmas party to worry about this year either. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I've never fully enjoyed the annual company Christmas party. You get all dressed up in your monkey suit, the missus needs a new outfit every year and you drive out to some community center or school or church hall, often in crappy weather. You usually can't park within a half a mile of the front door so you end up trying to navigate your way across an icy parking lot, you in your Italian leather loafers and the wife in her stilettos, without falling and breaking a leg or at least a heel.

Since I worked out of town, the Christmas party was always out of town as well, so I couldn't fully let my hair down and imbibe because I had to drive home at the end of the night (my wife doesn't drive). Oh, the company covered cab fare, but only for those employees who lived in town (cheapskates!) Staying the night at a hotel is an option, I suppose, assuming you can get a room at all, because it's a busy time of year for travellers. Besides, I've never been very comfortable sleeping in hotels anyway, even good ones.

The actual dinner was usually at least mildly enjoyable, if somewhat predictable (chicken or roast beef) as long as you wound up at a table with anybody else whom you knew, which wasn't always the case. Heaven forbid you found yourself surrounded by a bunch of strangers, especially if you're a natural introvert, like me; or, worse yet, with someone whose company you didn't even enjoy at the office, let alone at a party!

And why could I never, ever, ever win the centerpiece or a &@#!! door prize? For years I went to the annual Christmas party, and I never won anything. My sister (who is still employed) won the centerpiece at her company shindig this year. This must be the third time she's won the centerpiece. I hate her. She was always mom and dad's favorite and, apparently, she was always Fate's favorite too, not that I'm bitter.

Even as I write this, I have no doubt that my former boss, who happens to be one of my regular readers, is going to leave a comment reminding me that I did win a door prize at the last company party that I attended. It's true, I did. I won a very attractive gift basket; you know, the kind that's full of crackers and cheese and chocolate wafers and tea and stuff. I'm sure that's why I'm now unemployed. Just as no good deed goes unpunished, neither does good luck, apparently. Even then, Fate couldn't resist adding one of those special ironic twists that she reserves just for me. The gift basket that I won was donated by the company for which my brother-in-law (my sister's husband) works, so she probably has a whole pantry full of the things anyway!

As for the dance which inevitably follows the dinner, I was never overly fond of dancing, largely due to the fact that I can't dance. The rare time that my wife manages to coax me out onto the floor, I usually end up looking like some kind of public service ad for Parkinson's Disease.

All in all, when it comes right down to it, I'm usually just as happy (or probably happier) spending a nice, quiet evening at home, sipping a glass of Bailey's and watching "A Christmas Carol" (the Alastair Sim version, of course) for what must be the eight-hundredth time. Unemployment made that possible, and it also made it a whole lot easier for me to identify with Bob Cratchit.

Since everybody who knows me knows that I'm out of work, I get a pass on cheap Christmas presents this year. Nobody expects anything overly extravagant or even good from someone on a budget. I could probably get away with raiding Wal-Mart's bargain bin, if I wanted to.

Mom: Oh, here's one from Andy and the family. I can't wait to open it ... it looks like a DVD ... yes, it is! Let's see now ... Pilates for Dummies. Why that's, er, just ... wonderful! Exactly what I wanted! Thank you so much!

Being unemployed makes it easier to get rid of charities and telephone solicitors too...

Phone: RING-RING!

Me: Hello?

Telephone Solicitor: Hello, is this Mr. Halmanator?

Me: Yes it is.

Telephone Solicitor: Mr. Halmanator, I'm calling on behalf of the Out Of The Cold program. We're collecting gently used winter coats or cash donations to help the less fortunate who can't afford...

Me: Oh, man, I'd love to help you but, you see, I'm kind of between jobs just now...

Telephone Solicitor: I'm very sorry to hear that, Mr. Halmanator. You have a very...

Me: Did you say you give out winter coats? You wouldn't have anything in a size forty by any chance? My old flannel overcoat's kind of moth-eaten and starting to feel a bit drafty...

Telephone Solicitor: Well Mr. Halmanator, you're free to visit our depot at...

Me: Right, well, I tried to get down there last week but my old jalopy gave up the ghost half way there. Couldn't even afford a tow truck to...

Telephone Solicitor: I'm very sorry to hear that sir. Unfortunately, I can't...

Me: (Mournfully) That's okay. I'm sure I'll make it through one more winter. It's the ... the kids that I'm really more concerned about. Greg, Marsha, Bobby, Cindy, Kurt, Louisa, Friedrich, Gretl, and ... Sniff! ... little Tiny Tim! He looks so pale and thin of late...

Phone: CLICK! HUMMMMMMMMM....

Me: Hello? Hello?

You can bet they crossed me off their call list.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Spirituality

I normally try to stay away from religion on this blog. It's much too sensitive a topic, and too hard to discuss rationally. Up until now, I've written only one post having specifically to do with religion, and one other one that touches on the subject (in a poem). However, I found myself in church last Sunday morning, asking myself why I was there. I'm not particularly religious, you see. When my daughter was younger, I would go to church in order to set an example. Although I'm not religiously devout, I felt that she needed exposure to religion, else how could she later make a decision on something about which she knew nothing? By the same token, I've never been the kind of father who insists that his child must do something that he himself is unwilling to do. Now, however, she's approaching the age at which she must decide for herself what her beliefs are. My tenure as her Shining Example is almost at an end. Hence, my dilemma. Why was I still there?

I was raised Roman Catholic. When I was a child, I was a True Believer. God was good and the devil was bad and kids who went to church and said their prayers and behaved well went to heaven when they died. Those who didn't believe in God were bad, and they went to hell when they died.

As I grew up, I became aware of more and more subtleties, nuances, exceptions and contradictions that the priests and my teachers tried hard not to dwell on during my years of indoctrination into the Catholic faith. For example, I learned that there are other religions that don't recognize Jesus of Nazareth as a deity, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. Most of these religions worship a single, all-powerful, omnipresent deity although they call it by different names; Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah. However, the various religions differ radically in the details of their beliefs.

Even Christianity, I learned, is divided into several sects that disagree with each other about the details of the Christian faith. Roman Catholics aren't the only Christians. There are also Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Jehovah's Witnesses, to name but a few.

Now here's the kicker; each sect is convinced that theirs is the true and correct faith and that all of the others have strayed from the path, just as each of the major religions is likewise convinced that they are the Chosen People and all of the others are either infidels or at least sadly ignorant of God's true nature.

I also learned that there are people who don't believe in the existence of an all-powerful deity nor a heaven or a hell or even an afterlife at all. We call these people atheists or agnostics and I was taught to see them as evil and immoral. Then a funny thing happened. As my life progressed, I met a few self-professed atheists and, to my surprise, some of them seemed neither evil nor immoral to me. They just didn't happen to believe in that which they couldn't see. They made me start asking new questions. My religious teachers generally discouraged questions, because questions lead to doubt, and doubt is bad.

Why do we need a God or the promise of heaven or the threat of eternal damnation as an excuse to live good lives? Does it make sense to neglect this life in favor of an afterlife? What if there is no heaven? What if the world in which we live is all that we have, and all that we'll ever have? Wouldn't it be a good idea, then, to work on making it as heaven-like as possible?

I further discovered that, just as not all atheists and agnostics are necessarily evil, not all religiously devout people are necessarily good either. Some outwardly pious religious authority figures have used their religion as a vehicle to hurt and abuse. The Catholic church burned those who questioned its doctrines as witches and heretics for centuries. Certain radical Muslims seem to believe that they have been charged by Allah Himself to destroy the infidels of other faiths. In the late nineteen-eighties, The "reverend" Jimmy Swaggart was caught spending the money donated to his ministry by the faithful on prostitutes.

At some point, I went back to asking myself some fundamental questions:

Question: What was I taught when I grew up?

Answer: That there is God and there is the devil, and they compete for the souls of humanity.

Question: What's the difference between the two?

Answer: God is good. The devil is evil. God wants us to be good and to do good. The devil wants us to be evil and to do evil.

Question: Why does God want good, rather than evil?

Answer... Wow. I had to stop to think about that. Why is good preferable over evil? Why can't everyone act purely in their own self-interest, and others be damned? What's wrong with looking out for Number One?

Because that way leads to chaos and anarchy. Nobody is an island. We all need the help of others from time to time, and we accomplish more and improve our world and our lives when we work together. That means being empathetic of other peoples' wants, needs and feelings and acknowledging that everyone else has the same rights as I do. There's nothing wrong with acting in my own best interests, as long as doing so doesn't involve hurting someone else. Unfortunately, every situation is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes, there has to be a winner and a loser. "Aye, there's the rub", as Shakespeare so eloquently put it.

The religious and the secular are often at odds with each other. I've heard both sides argue their positions many times and, unfortunately, those arguments often focus on ridiculing opposing beliefs. Religiously devout Christians insist that we must be Born Again. We must accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. Only in this way can our souls be saved. Any other path leads to eternal damnation, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. The secular sometimes deride the religiously devout as mindless simpletons who have been brainwashed by superstition. "I refuse to believe in that for which there is no evidence," they declare.

Where do I stand? I don't know. I'm not a very good Roman Catholic, and I question many of the beliefs of the faith in which I was raised, yet I'm prepared to allow that there may be forces in the universe of which we humans know nothing. Just because I can't perceive something, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. If I were deaf, I could hear no sounds, yet the sound waves would still be there for those with the ability to perceive them. In that sense, I am neither an atheist nor an agnostic.

I don't believe that any one religion has a monopoly on truth. I think that they share many common ideas and that, in the end, they all strive for the same fundamental goal; the promotion of good over evil; but they waste too much time and energy bickering about the details.

I believe that good makes more sense than evil, because good leads to harmony whereas evil leads to chaos; therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to try to improve this world in any way that we can.

I don't know what, if anything, lies beyond death, but I believe it will take care of itself as long as I stay true to myself and my beliefs. If there's nothing beyond death, then I will neither know nor care after I die. If there is more, then I will discover it with the same fascination with which I've discovered this world since being born into it.

So, getting back to my original question, why was I in church last Sunday? Because I need to feed my spirituality somehow and, for all of its imperfections, the faith in which I was raised still accomplishes that. Once in a while, I still find ideas there that are worth meditating upon.

If I some day find myself standing in judgement before God, I will not say "I believed", nor will I say "I disbelieved". I will say "I didn't know, but I did the best I could with what I was given, and I tried to treat others the way I would want to be treated, most of the time, anyway." I don't think I would much care for a God that would condemn me for that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas Lights

Last week, I hung our exterior Christmas lights. I never hang Christmas lights until December and I'm bothered by people who hang them and turn them on "too early". In my part of town, I've been seeing Christmas lights shining from certain houses since mid-November. That, in my opinion, is too early. Never start in about Christmas before the Hallowe'en candy's been eaten, so say I. Now, I understand that some people like to hang their lights early, before the weather turns too cold and disagreeable, and I have no objection to that, as long as they don't actually turn them on.

I'm not humbugging Christmas. Quite the opposite, in fact. I just feel that, when you flog an occasion too early or too often, you reduce it's specialness. I mean, why don't we just shine Christmas lights all year round? Because then, come Christmas, they'd be ordinary; routine. "Christmas comes but once a year," it's said. So does winter but, by March, most of us are tired of it.

Be that as it may, last week my calendar, which never lies, announced that November had become December, so I finally agreed that it was time to herald the coming of the holiday and hung our lights.

At the left side of our house is a large evergreen bush, really more of a dwarf fir tree, which I adorn with strings of LED lights each year. This bush happens to be home to a family of house sparrows, all of who got somewhat perturbed by this massive human clambering about their home and stringing wire all over the place. I wondered what thoughts must pass through their avian minds when this sort of thing happens.

"What in blazes is that human up to now? Can't a bird relax in the comfort of his own bush without these neanderthals creating a ruckus? And what is this stuff he's draping all over the outer branches? Some kind of trap, maybe? Pretty stupid one, if so. I mean, I can plainly see it." (After cautiously examining the strand and pecking at a light bulb or two:) "Well, it seems harmless enough, I suppose. But what's it for?"

I wonder what their reaction is when the sun goes down and the lights come on. Do they find the lights pretty, or are they annoyed because the brightness keeps them awake at night? "Jeez! It's like trying to sleep in the lobby of Caesar's Palace! That's it! I am gonna take such a crap on the human's car tomorrow! Let's see how he likes someone else 'decorating' his stuff!"

I'll bet the sparrows are glad I wait until December to hang the lights.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Human Cost

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I've recently joined the ranks of the unemployed. This only happened to me one other time, near the beginning of my career. Back then, I had a new job within about a month. Even this time around, I already have a couple of prospects, one of them quite promising. Even if those don't pan out, my status as a long-tenured worker qualifies me to receive employment insurance benefits for almost a year, my wife still contributes her small, minimum-wage income to our budget, and I've had some financial help from my extended family as well. I'm not too concerned about my family's financial well-being ... not yet, anyway.

There's a psychological side to this as well. I've heard the loss of one's job compared to the loss of a loved one. I agree that there are some similarities. The full impact of the loss doesn't sink in right away. It takes some time to come to grips with the new reality. The first week or two spent at home feels something like a regular vacation. It's not until the third or fourth week that you begin to understand that you're not going back to the place where you've become accustomed to spending the better part of your waking hours, in some cases for most of your adult life, ever again. You begin to feel lost; to wonder, "What's next? Where do I go from here?"

Then a sense of futility begins to take hold. You think about all of the things that you did while employed; the projects, the meetings, the routine operations, and you realize that, now, it's all gone. In the long run, none of it mattered, and your best efforts weren't enough to save the organization. Suddenly, all those years begin to seem like so much wasted time.

I'd like to share a sad story that was told to me by a former fellow employee just yesterday, because it really crystallized for me the human cost that's so often overlooked by the unfeeling financiers who make the decisions that so profoundly impact the lives of real people, based only on dollars and cents. After the news broke that the organization was in receivership, she walked into the office of one of the plant managers and found him gathering up his personal belongings. Having finished packing everything into a cardboard box, he took one last look around his office and, seeming satisfied that he'd forgotten nothing, he prepared to take the box out to his car. His visitor noticed that his gold quarter-century service pin (he had been with the company for over twenty-five years) was still on his desk, and warned him that he'd forgotten it.

"No, I'm leaving it," he replied, "it doesn't mean anything anymore."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dental Spa

My dentist recently moved his office to a new building. The new office is much nicer than the old one; bigger, more spacious, better parking and, get this, there's a flat-screen LCD TV mounted over each of the chairs so that each patient can watch TV whilst having their teeth drilled or cleaned or whatever it is they're having done. The hygienist who cleaned my teeth during my last visit explained that the TVs help to relax some of the more nervous patients who tend to be jittery about the idea of a dentist probing their mouths with sharp instruments. Well yes, I suppose so ... as long as they don't hook the monitors up to a DVD player showing "Marathon Man". The icing on the cake is the dentist's personal office. The chair on which he reclines his patients actually has a built-in massage.

"So, how do you like the new office?" asked the hygienist. (Why do they always wait until your mouth is full of tubes and hoses before asking their questions?)

"It's good to see where all my money has gone," I answered, taking advantage of the split-second that it took her to move a tube from one side of my mouth to the other. (You get good at these things after enough visits to the dentist).

"Like, I must've heard that from just about everyone who's come in here today!" she gasped, rolling her eyes. Hey, don't ask the question if you're not sure you want to hear the answer.

Seriously, though, I have to commend my dentist. Sure, he obviously does pretty well, but at least he's put some of that money back into making his patients' experience a more comfortable and pleasant one. He could just as easily have kept the old office and used the extra cash to build himself a swimming pool or buy a new Mercedes. I wasn't being completely cynical. It really is good to see where all my money has gone. My dentist beats my government in that way.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Kudos

Years ago, shortly after I joined the company where I've worked for the past ten years, I fixed a problem with the program that processed outgoing invoices. It was a particularly obscure and vexing problem. Several programmers had looked into it without success. Perhaps, being relatively new at the time, I approached the problem without any assumptions or preconceptions or perhaps I was simply able to focus better because I was not yet bogged down with other work. Whatever the reason, I eventually found and fixed the problem.

After the next batch or two of invoices had been processed correctly and it became apparent that the problem was, indeed, a thing of the past, I received an e-mail that a co-worker had addressed to the entire I.T. staff, including my boss, which read:

GOOD NEWS FOR TODAY

Andy found and fixed the program that was fouling up WCUD01 for much of last week and the beginning of this week. On drop ship orders with substitutions and multiple invoices, any invoice after the first would pick up the account values for previous invoices and, of course, not balance.

NO MORE ----- Andy has fixed this and our mornings should run much smoother for 2000 and beyond.

ANDY --- YOU ARE MY HERO!


I smiled and moved my mouse pointer over the DELETE MESSAGE button and was about to left-click when I suddenly paused and decided instead, for no particular reason, to leave the message in my In Box for a little while longer.

Some time later, I helped out the CEO's wife with a simple printer connectivity problem. Normally, PC and network-related problems were not my area of responsibility, but it was during the Christmas shutdown, with almost no-one in the office and I was on duty, covering the Help Desk phone, so I investigated and, again, fixed the problem. I thought nothing of it until the following week, when I was copied on another e-mail which the CEO's wife had sent to my boss:

Sandy, just a brief note to let you know of the assistance provided to me by Andy this morning. I came to work to print some letters and year end documents. Unfortunately, I had no luck as there appeared to be something wrong with my connection to the printer in HR. My contact in MIS was Andy. He came right away and stayed with me to fix the problem. He was successful and I felt that you should know of his wonderful co-operation. Thanks to MIS and especially Andy. Hope that you and your family enjoy good health and happiness in 2000.

Again I smiled and then, remembering that I had never deleted the e-mail about the invoice problem, I created a new e-mail folder, named it "Kudos" and moved both of the e-mails into it.

As time passed, I helped with other issues and, every once in a while, someone would be impressed or thankful enough to send me an e-mail saying so. Each time it happened, I would add the e-mail to my Kudos folder. Last week, I counted the messages in the folder. There are 33 of them. That's an average of 3.3 things I've done right for each year that I've been with the company. Not bad!

You're probably thinking, "Well, aren't we full of ourselves?" Not really. Well, okay, yes, but that's not the point.

Times are harder now. The economic downturn has brutalized the company. Just yesterday, I learned that management's last-ditch effort to find a buyer who might save the organization as a going concern fell through. The company is to be liquidated, and I'll soon be out of work.

I knew that the company's prospects were bleak even as I browsed the messages in my Kudos folder last week. Still, the digital pats on the back brought a smile and helped me to forget the dire realities of the present for just a few moments.

From Harve:
I'm impressed! Great job in getting the payroll running again so fast.

From Cindy:
Thank-you - thank-you - thank-you so much ! What a relief after all this time not to have to print the OPLs manually ! I owe you one!

From Debbie:
THANKS FOR MAKING MY JOB SO MUCH EASIER. XXXOOO

From Sylvia:
Where have you been all these years?

From Bob:
I understand how stressful a situation it was for all of us, and I appreciate the extra hours everyone stayed, and Andy taking time away from his holidays to lend a hand, to ensure the system was operating properly and we were able to complete the shipment.

From Jo-Anne:
Your programs are awesome!

There's more, but I'm starting to blush. My point is that, after re-reading some of these, any fears that I had over my uncertain future largely subsided. It's as though all those people were standing over me, whispering "Hey, don't worry. You're good. You'll be fine."

In her famous 1997 Chicago Tribune article entitled "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted On The Young" (More widely known simply as "Sunscreen"), Mary Schmich wrote:
Remember compliments you receive.
Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
I think I've found a way, Mary. It's quite simple. Simply record the compliments. If they come in the form of e-mail or a printed or hand-written hard copy, file them away somewhere for safe keeping. If they're merely spoken, write them down yourself. Don't record the derogatory remarks. Just let them go.

People won't always go out of their way to pat us on the back when we do well. When they do, there's value in keeping some sort of memento so that we can bring it out to cheer us when we need a lift, like a trophy or a photograph of an old friend or a loved one.

The other thing that I hope you take away from this, Dear Reader, is the importance of acknowledging those who impress us and letting them know that they are appreciated. It's a small thing, but it makes a big difference.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Turn The Page

On this Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day if you're in the U.S.) I'm going to do something uncharacteristic and surrender the spotlight to those much more eloquent than I. First, I offer this excellent article by Dr. Gwynne Dyer. This and many other insightful articles are available on Dr. Dyer's web site, but I have re-posted the text here on my blog with his kind permission.



Turn The Page

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years ago this month (July, 2007), there were twenty-four left. Now they are all gone, and there is nobody alive who fought in the First World War. Well, there is still Jack Babcock, who joined the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1917 but got no closer to the fighting than England, and American veteran Frank Buckles, who drove an ambulance in France as a 17-year-old in 1918. But the last real combatant, Harry Patch, who was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, died on Saturday (July 25).


They’ve been going fast. Erich Kaestner, the last German veteran, died in January, 2008. Tony Pierro, who fought with the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918, died in February. Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the generation of French men who fought in the trenches, died a month later. (One-third of French males who were between 13 and 30 in 1914 did not survive the war.)

Yakup Satar, who joined the Turkish army in 1915 and fought in Iraq, died in April, 2008. Delfino Borroni, the last Italian veteran, died in October. Australia’s last veteran, Jack Ross, died last month (June, 2009), and Henry Allingham, the grandest old man of all, died a week ago (July, 2009).

Henry Allingham was almost twenty in 1916 when he took part in the Battle of Jutland, the last and greatest clash of armoured steel battleships. (He saw the giant shells “skipping off the water.”) As a mechanic in the Royal Naval Air Service, he flew missions over the freezing North Sea in 1917 in seaplanes that he described as “motorised kites.” And he spent 1918 in France trying to recover British planes that came down in No Man’s Land.

"We were moving forward at night,” he recalled about the Western Front. “It was dark... I fell into a shell hole. It was full of arms, legs, ears, dead rats - a lot of dead, rotten flesh... I lay there in the dark, not daring to move, cold and with my uniform stinking. I was frightened." Sixty million men had the same memories, but they are no longer with us.

Harry Patch was an apprentice plumber when he was conscripted in 1916, and nineteen years old when he arrived at the Western Front in 1917. He lasted four months before a German shell burst overhead, killing three close friends and wounding him in the groin. He was evacuated to England, and never saw the war again.

He married in 1918, had children, followed his trade of plumbing, and served as a volunteer fireman during the bombing raids on Bristol during the Second World War. He died on Saturday (July 25), at the age of 111. So what have Harry Patch of Somerset and his sixty million comrades (for it no longer matters which side they were on) left behind for us?

One thing they would have been quite clear about: we can’t do this any more. In the First World War we crossed a threshold. All the advances in science and technology came together and created a kind of industrialised warfare that is simply unsustainable in human terms. It consumes soldiers, civilians, whole cities at a rate that endangers civilisation itself.

All the technological innovations that have been added since the First World War – armoured divisions, bomber fleets, nuclear weapons – only deepen the lesson, they don’t change it. Human beings have fought wars since we were all hunter-gatherers, and those who were good at it tended to prosper. Now, if you are really good at war, you will be destroyed.

Europe is just where industrialised total war first appeared. You can send expeditionary forces into the weaker parts of what we used to call the Third World and bash them to your heart’s content, but if you get into a serious fight with another fully industrialised country, you will be both be destroyed. (This is a lesson that emerging industrial countries like India, China and Brazil can learn cheaply from history, or very expensively from experience.)

What else did the sixty million leave us? Inscribed on the wall of the chapel at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where I taught “war studies” as a much younger man, is the first line of Horace’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:” How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. But we don’t believe that lie any more.

Wilfred Owen was killed crossing the Sambre canal a week before the war ended. He never got any older than 25, but he put the wisdom that the millions bought with their lives into his poem “Dulce et decorum est.” It’s about a poison gas attack, and the last lines run: If you could hear..the blood come gargling from the froth- corrupted lungs....My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

It’s almost a century now since anybody but fascists and fools saw war as glorious. The government may tell us that our “glorious dead” have “fallen”, but we know that they were only teenagers, and that they died in agony and lost all the rest of their lives. Sometimes we even worry about the fact that we have sent them to kill people for us.

In 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, Harry Patch was manning his machine-gun when a German got close enough that he looked like a real person – and suddenly Harry realised that he didn’t want to kill him. Shouldn’t kill him, in fact. He shot the German in the shoulder, which made him drop his rifle, but he kept coming.

So Harry shot him again, first above the knee and then in the ankle. God knows if the German survived all this, but at least Harry was trying. So are the rest of us. Most of the time.



I have nothing more profound to add to that, so I'll leave you with this beautiful Remembrance Day video by Terry Kelly.





Friday, November 6, 2009

Autumn

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!
This excerpt from "Autumn Fires" by Robert Louis Stevenson pretty much sums up how I feel about autumn. This is my favorite time of year. The vibrant colors, the crispness in the air, the festivals of Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving and Hallowe'en; all around one sees a celebration of the earth's bounty even as both man and nature prepare for the winter hibernation. Alright, most of us don't actually hibernate, but there is a definite slowing of pace as winter approaches. We travel less, the shorter days leave many less inclined to work as many hours as they might during the longer days of summer, and I like to think that we spend more time in the comfort of our homes with our families.

In my hemisphere of the world, the constellation Orion, the hunter, can be seen directly overhead in the early morning hours before the sun rises. By December, it will be visible at night. Orion is my favorite constellation, possibly because I associate it with this season. It's one of the larger constellations and includes several of the brighter stars in our galaxy. There's even a nebula hiding in his scabbard. He seems to stretch out his arms as if to embrace the Earth.

Being an essentially lazy person, I don't much care for the chore of raking up fallen leaves, and their beauty as they cover the dormant, yellowing grass with a multi-coloured carpet makes me even more reluctant to remove them. I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way. In his book, "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten", Robert Fulghum writes:

"Across the back of our house is a row of middle-aged matronly maple trees, extravagantly dressed in season in a million leaf-sequins. And in season the sequins detach. Not much wind in our sheltered yard, so the leaves lie about the ladies' feet now like dressing gowns they've stepped out of in preparation for the bath of winter.

I like the way it looks. I like the way it looks very much. My wife does not. The gardening magazine does not like it, either. Leaves should be raked. There are rules. Leaves are not good for grass. Leaves are moldyslimy. But I like leaves so much, I once filled my classroom at school ankle-deep with them.

There is a reason for leaves. There is no reason for mowed grass. So say I."

Here's to you, Robert. It's always nice to meet a kindred spirit.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Easily Amused

Recently, I reminisced about how, during my boyhood, I would sometimes spend time watching raindrops splashing into puddles on rainy days. This may not seem like the sort of pastime that would hold most peoples' attentions for very long. Although I never timed myself, I daresay that this activity probably held my attention for far longer than most people would deem reasonable. Apparently I was already sorely in need of a life, even during my tender years.

It was always thus with me. My mother sometimes reminisces about my toddler years. Anyone who has ever parented a little boy between the ages of two and five years will agree that raising such a child is very much a "hands-on" activity. They tend to be full of energy, and they're into everything. You can't turn your back on them for a moment. Not so with me. According to mom, all I needed was a handful of Matchbox cars and I would sit quietly in some corner, playing with them for hours. Sometimes, she barely knew that I was there.

In fact, I've heard her recount, on a number of occasions, an anecdote about the time that our family moved to a new apartment. Mom set me down with my collection of Matchbox cars and left me to play while she went about the business of unpacking and arranging our new home. After several hours, as the sun began to set outside, I finally put down my cars, walked up to my mother and asked, "When are we going back home?" I spoiled my mother during my early years but, that's okay; I'm making up for it in my adulthood.

Things didn't change as I aged. During my schoolboy years, I would often pass the time when it wasn't raining playing bizarre solitary games which I had invented and whose appeal was apparent only to myself. One involved sitting in the backyard with plastic ships (essentially, bathtub or beach toys), dropping ants which I had caught onto their decks and watching as they clambered around. I was particularly satisfied when one of them would move between decks in the proper manner, by scurrying up or down a staircase or ladder, rather than straight up or down the wall, which I of course regarded as "cheating". I could never quite make the ants understand the rules of the game.

Another favorite game involved squeezing drops of water onto the north pole of a model globe, then turning the globe slowly and watching the droplets run down the northern hemisphere, toward the equator. If one of the mountain ranges, which were slightly raised, obstructed a droplet's path, I watched in fascination as it detoured around the perimeter or, more rarely, as it actually crested the summits and rolled down the other side, a giant tsunami besting even the mountains themselves. Once past the equator (i.e. the underside of the globe) I would muse as to how long the droplet could cling to the globe's surface before gravity overcame its adherence and it dropped off the face of the world. Antarctica was by far the driest continent on my globe.

If I happened to have inflated balloons handy (usually after a birthday or some such festivity), I would while away the hours with a game of "Battling Balloons". This involved dropping the balloons, which were filled with plain old carbon dioxide rather than helium and were therefore heavier than air, onto a heating vent on the floor. The rising warm air would toss the balloons around and, whichever one was the highest, was deemed to be "winning". I should point out that said heating vent was positioned near a corner of the room at the foot of a bed. The two walls that formed the room's corner and the foot of the bed served to corral the balloons over the heating vent, so that they couldn't easily escape the warm air current. Hence, they would jostle around, rising and sinking, jockeying for the coveted high ground while I watched. Good times!

Not all of the odd games that I invented were solitary. My neighbour and best friend, Mart, and I came up with a number of unusual two-player games. One was called "Hide-On-Each-Other". It's like Hide-And-Go-Seek, except that all players are both hider and seeker concurrently. The game involved skulking around our homes, trying to find and watch the other guy without being spotted ourselves.

Then there was the classic "Comeback Wheels". This involved the use of small plastic colored discs from some board game or other. We would set the discs on their edges on the floor, with the edge facing ourselves, then press our index fingers diagonally against the discs, exerting a simultaneous downward and forward pressure. Friction would hold the discs in place until the pressure caused them to spring free, in effect "flicking" the discs away from ourselves but spinning them in the opposite direction from their movement. The result was that the discs would skid away from us at first but then, as they lost momentum and gained traction from the counter-spin, come rolling back toward us. This game had no obvious object or conditions for winning. It was just fun to do.

You would probably think that, having reached adulthood, I've matured to the point where I no longer pass my time with such mindless pursuits. You would be mistaken. I've mentioned before, in this blog, that I enjoy computer games. What I didn't mention is that I don't always play games in the intended manner. (Well, come to think of it, I sort of did, didn't I? But that's not what I mean in this case). Even in the virtual world of the computer, I seem to have retained my youthful fascination with simply watching things unfold.

I'm an avid fan of Microsoft's Flight Simulator series. Their latest release provides a camera view that focuses on A.I. aircraft; that is, air traffic controlled by the computer rather than myself. I'd be embarrassed to admit how many hours I've spent, not actually flying, but just watching the A.I. aircraft while my simulated aircraft sat idle at an airport. In my own defense, or at least in the way of explanation, I'm intrigued by the behavior of the computer's A.I. (artificial intelligence). I find it fascinating to watch an A.I. aircraft taxi to a runway, take off, follow its flight path, enter a pattern, land, and then taxi to parking, all without any input from me. Sometimes, at busy airports, I've even seen A.I. aircraft abort an approach and go around because of traffic on the runway. The thought of a machine handling all that while (for normal people, at least) simultaneously modeling the flight characteristics of the player's aircraft and rendering the world realistically, not to mention weather, air traffic communications and even ground traffic, never loses its awe for me.

I've also spent a fair bit of time with The Sims, one of the more popular games available for the PC. For those unfamiliar with The Sims, the game is a sort of virtual doll house. You create a family, move it into a house, and control every aspect of their lives; their careers, their friends, their jobs, how they spend their leisure time and how the furnish and decorate their homes. I say that "you" do all of this. I do not. When I run The Sims on my computer, I often refrain from giving any of my characters any sort of guidance or instruction whatsoever. Instead, I simply watch them, curious to see what they will do when left to their own devices, much like the ants on the deck of my ship so many years ago. If they're tired and don't know enough to get some sleep, so be it. Watching them return from work the next day, only to pass out from exhaustion and crumple to the pavement before they can even enter their homes, much less reach their beds, only amuses me. Watching other passer-by Sims come across their dormant forms, stop to examine them, shrug their shoulders and go on their way amuses me even more.

I suppose that people like myself (and I do hope that there are others, else I'm worse than I thought) are so easily amused because we live largely inside of our own heads. Our own imaginations are our chief forms of entertainment. This has its advantages. If I ever become a quadriplegic, I'll wager I adjust to it much more easily than most would. Not that I'm suggesting anything.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Good Old Days

I've noted before on this blog that I'm a sucker for nostalgia. I probably spend more time than I should reminiscing about my childhood and my adolescent years. The old neighborhood in which my family lived for the first ten years after arriving in Canada. The neighborhood kids; Mark, Randy, Donna, Brian, Eric, Karen, Ruthie and the rest. I can still see most of their faces in my mind's eye. My kindergarten classmates, many of which remained classmates all the way up to the seventh grade. I still remember most of their names; Dave Wendling, Valerie Oestreich, Doug Halley, Laura Murray, Brian MacIsaac, Patty Michalewicz, Johnny Pacheco and Laurie Kennedy, my first schoolboy crush. The music that I grew up with; Blue Suede, the Brothers Johnson, the Bee Gees, the Knack, 10cc, Brook Benton. The TV shows; the old Batman serials, Star Trek, the Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Quincy, The Night Stalker, Banocek ... ah, the good old days!

Let's begin by giving credit where it's due. This post was inspired by a podcast called Before Fast Food from a regular feature called Lovers and Other Strangers hosted by Don Jackson of Toronto's CHFI-FM. In fact, you may want to listen to the podcast, either before or after reading the rest of this post. For those of you who multi-task, you can listen while reading. Just click here. You'll need some time, though. It runs for about an hour.

The podcast begins by quoting former U.S. Vice President Herbert J. Humphrey, who once said, that the "good old days" were "never that good". He had a point. The past often tends to look rosier with the benefit of hindsight, doesn't it? Case in point; here's a link to a web site that romanticizes the sixties. Boy, those sixties sure were wonderful, weren't they? Mind you, the presentation also mentions the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr., John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of full-scale nuclear war. Even this nostalgic web site acknowledges that the "good old days" weren't always all that good, just as Humphrey said.

My love of nostalgia lead me to choose a Chrysler PT Cruiser for my current car. I like the retro styling. It looks like something from the forties or early fifties. Are you old enough to remember what the cars of the forties and fifties were like? I'm not, but I know that they used a lot more gas and caused a lot more pollution than the cars of today do. They were a lot less safe, too. Before the Tucker and, later, Ralph Nader forced the automotive industry to start taking safety seriously, cars often had no seat belts. Before safety glass, broken windshields could be lethal. Before fuel injection, engines often stalled when it rained and too much dampness got under the hood. Brake efficiency suffered noticeably as well after driving on wet streets or through puddles. A lovingly maintained 1949 Packard Convertible Coupé may bring a sentimental smile, but you probably wouldn't want to drive one, at least not with any regularity. My PT Cruiser has the retro looks without all the retro headaches; the best of both worlds, one might say.

On the other hand, some of our modern conveniences seem to have backfired on us. Take the cell phone. We can call anyone at a moment's notice, no matter where we are, and they can reach us too. So can the boss. Suddenly, we're never really off the clock anymore. Jim Balsillie of RIM, recently touted the Blackberry's ability to give people more "flexibility" with regard to their working hours. Seems to me that "flexibility", in this context, is just a positive-sounding way of saying "just because we're not at the office, doesn't mean we're off duty." It's becoming harder and harder to spend time with our families without worrying about interruptions from the office, or simply to shut the world out and just find a few quiet moments to think and to reflect.

One particular woman that I recently read about who runs a catering business noted that, thanks to her Blackberry, her clients can reach her even on Christmas Eve, as though this were a good thing. Imagine if Jesus had been born today. There's the Holy Family, huddled in the modern equivalent of a stable (probably some budget motel in Bethlehem, PA) when suddenly a buzzing emits from Joseph's hip. Reaching down, he examines his Blackberry, looks at Mary and apologetically mutters "I have to take this".

If we really examine exactly what was so "good" about the "good old days", I think that most would conclude that it's more about simplicity than it is about what we had then versus now, or what was happening then versus now. Earlier times were simpler times. In his book, Information Anxiety, Richard S. Wurman writes that a single weekday edition of today's New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to encounter in a lifetime in 17th century England, and that's just a single hard-copy newspaper, never mind the internet, where we're inundated with the mindless rantings of the likes of me! What do we do with all of this information? How do we manage it? How do we sift out the useful and discard the rest? In his book (and television series), Connections, James Burke demonstrates how modern society has created what he calls a "technology trap". We use technology without truly understanding how it works and, in so doing, we've made ourselves so dependent upon it, we can no longer function or even survive without it. I think that many are at least subconsciously aware of this fact, if not consciously, and it scares us.

Small wonder that some of us longingly remember a time when we could drive our big, honkin' (no pun intended) finned gas guzzlers without feeling guilty about warming the planet; when the dawn of a new century didn't cause people to panic over the possibility of widespread power outages, inoperative gas stations, empty grocery store shelves, a stock market crash or elevators and aircraft crashing to the ground, all because of two little digits; when it was normal to retire from the same company that first hired us after we graduated from school; when a "family" was a clearly-defined and easily understood unit consisting of a married, hetrosexual couple and one or more of their direct offspring; in short, when the world was so much easier to understand and manage. The greater feeling of control over our own lives and destinies that we had then made us more self-confident and less anxious, even though that feeling of control may well have been largely an illusion caused by our own ignorance.

During the podcast that I mentioned near the start of this post, Gladys Knight says that, as bad as we may think that they are, these will become the "good old days" for our children. I'll take that one step further and suggest that, ten to twenty years from now, we ourselves may well refer to these days as "the good old days". It's okay to wax nostalgic every so often, as long as we're careful not to spend so much of our time reliving the past that we miss out on the present.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Birthday!

I created this blog on October 17th of last year. That means that, today, The Halmanator is officially one year old. I make this announcement with a certain amount of self-satisfied pride. Blogging has become something of a fad in our day and I'm certain that there have been many would-be bloggers who have jumped on the "blogwagon" only to post maybe four or five times and then lose interest and either delete their blogs or, worse still, allow their blogs to stagnate, existing in a perpetual on-line limbo, neither developing further nor being granted the dignity of removal from public ridicule. I had said, in my inaugural post, that I had thought long and hard before starting this blog. I wasn't going to do it unless I was committed to sticking with it. A year later, I have 57 posts worth of credibility under my belt.

My regular readership is small, but I'm nonetheless gratified that I do have regular readers. I take this to mean that my on-line musings have been interesting or entertaining enough to entice at least a handful of readers (all of them, admittedly, personal friends) to keep coming back to find out what's been on The Halmanator's mind lately. These people (and you know who you are) provide much of the inspiration that has motivated me to keep coming back. I appreciate your continued patronage, much as I pity your apparent lack of more interesting ways of passing the time. (I kid, of course).

Now that a year has passed and I've amassed a respectable collection of posts, I'd like to invite your comments telling me which were your favorite and least favorite posts over the past year. My goal remains to entertain and to stimulate, and it helps to know what interests my readers. Appeals for comments in the past have met with very limited response. That's okay. I understand. Perhaps you're shy, so allow me to start the ball rolling. I've spent some time re-reading myself over the past week, as it were. (I sometimes suspect that I'm my own biggest fan). Here are some of my personal favorite posts.

Although B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets wasn't technically my inaugural post, it was my first "real" post. One of the questions with which I wrestled whilst deciding whether or not to create a blog was what I would write about. Would there be a theme? Would it be serious or light-hearted? A soap-box upon which to rant? Then, one day, I was driving to work and "Bennie and the Jets" started playing on the radio. As I began musing on the silliness of the fact that I didn't know the words to such a well-known classic and, indeed, still couldn't make them out, even now that I was paying attention, I decided that this was the sort of thing that I would be most inclined to blog about. Some of my favorite posts are the completely whimsical ones that come totally out of left field.

My Starlost post garnered more verbal comments than any other. I was surprised at the number of people who said "Oh yeah! I remember that show! I'd almost completely forgotten about it!" One of them discovered that every episode was to be found on YouTube and, I believe, proceeded to watch most of them online. If any of the producers of the Starlost DVD collection are reading this, please send your contact information to halmanator@gmail.com and I'll send you the address to which you can mail the commission cheque for the increased sales revenue for which I'm undoubtedly responsible.

I still get a kick out of my Blog of Note post, even though it failed to get this blog recognized as a Blog of Note (lousy Blogger critics!) The Dr. Hook song whose lyrics it parodies is such a light-hearted, fun song to begin with. When I was a kid, I used to enjoy the Mad magazine articles that would parody the lyrics to popular songs. Besides, you think it was easy to come up with lyrics that both rhymed and sort of paralleled the original song lyrics? Let me tell you, that took some time and thought! I still chuckle as I sit here in my attic and sing my lyrics aloud to myself. I kill me! (...and everyone who hears me sing.)

Lots of people seemed to enjoy The Relish Tray. That was a true story. I told it to my family over dinner one evening and, when I saw the laughter that it elicited, I decided it might make an entertaining post. Self-deprecating humor was always one of my specialties.

Posts such as Toy Story, The U/C Airplane Follies, Tony and the CKMS / HBC / HUH post, bring a sentimental smile whenever I read them because they are personal reminiscences, so I realize that my reaction is hardly an objective one.

Well, that's enough self back-patting for one post. I'll close by assuring my five fans that I intend to keep blogging for the year to come and beyond, or at least until I run out of stuff to write about, which isn't very likely. Thanks for "being back".

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Coldfinger

Did you hear about the guy who who made himself a prosthetic finger? I came across the story in the local section of the paper, which is in itself a bit odd, given that I live in Ontario and the man in question lives in Moncton, New Brunswick. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, apparently this is some strange new usage of the word "local" with which I wasn't previously familiar.

According to the story, Richard Roy, a 44-year-old construction worker somehow contracted a particularly nasty infection in his hand which ended up costing him the index finger. When he found that the cost of an actual medical prosthetic would run about $10,000 he decided to save himself a few bucks and make one himself. Heck, how hard could it be, right?

And so it was that Roy went into his work shop and fashioned a prosthetic index finger using the foot peg from a Harley Davidson bike, a clamp used for holding down a truck cap and even parts from an R/C toy car so that he can make the finger flex and grasp objects by flexing his hand. How he intends to fasten the finger to his hand isn't made clear, but I imagine some good old-fashioned Krazy Glue, or maybe some duct tape, should do the trick. I'd say that Roy is obviously a fan of the Red Green show.

Not to belittle Roy's ingenuity, I'd say his home-built prosthetic is actually quite an accomplishment. From the picture, I'd say that, aside from allowing him to grasp and hold objects, it also looks like it might double as a handy bottle opener. You have to admire that! If you're ever at a party and want one of those annoying foreign beers whose bottle caps can't just be twisted off like our handy Canadian beer bottle caps, Roy's your man. He does admit, though, that his guitar playing days might be over for good, what with the lack of feeling in the prosthetic finger. On the other hand, if he can learn to switch hands when playing the guitar, he might be able to use the finger as a handy pick.

While I don't wish to make light of the underlying tragedy, there's a certain coolness factor in all of this. Isn't this how Darth Vader started out? Before you know it, Roy could be deflecting laser bolts with his palms or throttling people by remote control. If he ever gets lung cancer, I wouldn't put it past him to make himself a prosthetic lung out of an air compressor and a set of bagpipes. He might even start sounding like Darth Vader, or a Scottish Darth Vader anyway. ("Dinna be too prrrood of this technological terrrror ye've crrreated! The ken ta destrrroy a wee planet is bollocks next to the pow'rrr of the ferrrce!")

But seriously, if this prosthesis ends up working out for Roy, I see a lucrative business opportunity in it for him. He could start his own prosthetics business, directly competing with those high-priced medical prosthetics. Before you know it, he could be making a comfortable living giving others like himself the finger.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Rainy Day

It's Saturday afternoon, and raining outside. Not just an autumn shower; it's really coming down! Every so often, I hear the rumble of distant thunder. The sky is an inky gray and, inside the house, it's gotten so dim that we've had to turn on some lights in the middle of the afternoon. And here I sit in my attic, by the glow of my computer monitor, a small reading lamp illuminating my desk and keyboard, a steamy cup of tea within easy reach, and I feel fine.

I've always enjoyed rainy days. There's something cleansing about them. There's a certain feeling of comfort that comes from being indoors, warm and dry, while watching the cold, gray wetness just outside of my window.

On the other hand, I often don't mind venturing out into the rain either. When I was a young boy and it rained in the summertime, my sister and I would invariably doff our clothes, don our bathing suits and run out into the street, laughing and dancing about amidst the raindrops.

Sometimes I liked to watch the puddles of water that formed. As the raindrops splashed into them, they covered the surface with circular ripples that would quickly expand and dissipate. Often bubbles would spring up at the center of the ripples and float on the surface for just a few moments, before popping. There was something mesmerizing about watching the myriad of bubbles and circles constantly appearing and disappearing, only to be replaced by others. Little rivulets of water would form tiny streams that flowed along the sidewalk curbs and into the sewer drains. I'd watch the bubbles and leaves as they floated along with the current.

The sound of raindrops was always soothing to me, whether they splashed into puddles, pattered onto a carpet of fallen leaves, drummed hollowly against a window pane or tapped out a soft staccato on the rooftop above, as they are doing now.

There's a certain scent in the air following a rainfall; a musty mixture of damp leaves and grass, of wet pavement and moist soil. You can even smell the earthworms that the rain has coaxed to the surface. It's a curious mixture of decay and renewal.

A good rainfall can be the perfect excuse for procrastinators like me to put off outdoor chores. The grass needs cutting. I was going to do it today, but it's raining and you can't very well cut the grass in the rain. Ah well, there's nothing for it but to stay inside with my computer and my tea. The grass will have to wait.

When the radio at the office forecasts rain, the ladies who sit near me, obviously sun worshippers, groan in dismay. I say nothing, but quietly smile inwardly. Bring it on. Let it rain. I don't mind at all.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Disgruntled Lawyer

Goldenstern's rules tell us to never buy from a rich salesman and to always hire a rich attorney. I don't know who Goldenstern is or was, but his or her wisdom is irrefutable.

A story has been unfolding in the Canadian news media over the past couple of weeks about certain attorneys in Ontario, Canada who are asking to be removed from cases in which the province pays their fees because their clients are unable to do so. These are not necessarily public defenders per se.

My local newspaper has focused especially on one particular case in which a man charged with murdering his wife had originally been paying his defence attorney himself. When the courts decided to award his home to his wife's parents, who now have custody of his children, he turned to the province for financial help since he could no longer afford to pay his lawyer himself. His lawyer, however, decided that the rates payed by the province simply weren't high enough and asked to be removed from the case. The accused requested that his lawyer be kept on, citing confidence in his (the lawyer's) abilities. The judge ultimately decided that the lawyer's compensation, or lack thereof, was not the court's concern and that there wasn't time to arrange for an alternate defence attorney, a preliminary hearing having already been scheduled, and therefore denied the lawyer's request to be removed from the case.

Big win for the accused! Or is it? Let's think about that for a minute. The accused is now being represented by a lawyer who has openly stated that he doesn't think he's being payed enough. It probably doesn't help that, apparently, at least one other public defence attorney did indicate that he might be able to take over the case, but the judge nixed the idea anyway, mainly because the accused was adamant about wanting to keep his current lawyer. Now, not only is the lawyer P.O.'d about the chintzy pay, but he also holds his client directly responsible for not being excused from the case. Would you want a disgruntled lawyer with a personal grudge against you defending you against a murder rap?

The commonly-accepted wisdom is that it's never wise to upset anyone who provides a service, lest it suddenly turn into a disservice. Stiffing a waiter on his tip might only result in him spitting in your food or peeing in your coffee. Distasteful to be sure (pun intended), but things can get a lot uglier when your future hangs in the balance.

I can imagine the defence attorney's opening statement going something like "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the evidence against my client is entirely circumstantial. I urge you not to allow his beady little close-set, criminal eyes to affect your decision. I remind you, too, that he was acquitted of all five of his previous spousal abuse allegations, and that they have no bearing on this case in any event."

During the trial, one might hear exchanges such as:

Prosecuting Attorney: Mr. Ferguson, isn't it true that you hated your wife?

Judge: That implies a knowledge of Mr. Ferguson's state of mind. Does the defence wish to object?

Defence Attorney: I'll allow it.

It has been said that anyone who defends themselves in court has a fool for a client. I respectfully submit that so does the lawyer who doesn't really want to defend a case.

(Disclaimer: There was no mention of any previous spousal abuse allegations against the accused in any news story. I added that merely to exaggerate my point. You'll find that I do that.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Myers-Briggs

Some years ago, I participated in a Team Building seminar hosted by a former employer.  For those who have never had the dubious pleasure of participating in one, a Team Building seminar is a sort of sabbatical from the normal office routine, usually lasting between three and five days, during which fellow office workers commune to express their loathing of each other in a free and open forum.  No, I'm just kidding!  It's really sort of a group therapy session for co-workers so that they can better understand each others' needs, priorities and motivations.  It strives to dig a bit deeper into the psyches of people than is normal in a regular working environment.  I must admit, though, that certain frustrations and resentments were expressed during the exercise, and tears were shed before it was over.  Let me also state, for the record, that the organization in question didn't become a "former" employer because I was just a little too "open and honest" about my pent-up frustrations and resentment of the boss, if you take my meaning.

A few days before the seminar officially started, the participants were handed a multi-page questionnaire and a mark sense form.  The questionnaire consisted of questions such as:

Which would you most enjoy doing?

a) Building a bridge
b) Balancing a budget
c) Caring for a roomful of children
d) Solving a puzzle
e) Drinking margaritas on a Mexican beach

Well, okay, the choices were rarely as cut-and-dried as option "e".  The point is, the participants had to color in the appropriate letters on the mark sense forms which, I presume, were then put through some kind of computer program which in turn compiled the results into a detailed analysis of each respondent's personality traits; analytical, micro-manager, den mother, flaming homosexual, probable axe-murderer and so on.

In fact, the goal of the questionnaire was to work out each person's Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or "MBTI".  Until then, I had never heard of the MBTI.  For those of you who still haven't heard of it, the MBTI is a four-letter classification system that seeks to profile a person's natural proclivities.  For example, a person's MTBI may be INTP, ESTJ, ISFP or WIMP (well, okay, I don't think WIMP is a possible outcome ... unfortunately).

Each of the four letters indicates a specific personality trait.  The first identifies whether an individual is an Introvert ("I") or an Extrovert ("E").  The second identifies whether a person is iNtuitive ("N" - hey, "I" had already been taken) or Sensing ("S").  The third letter identifies whether a person is Thinking ("T") or Feeling "F") and the last identifies whether a person is perceptive ("P") or judging ("J").  Each of these four characteristics should be thought of as a scale, rather than a black-and-white, one-or-the-other type attribute.  For example, a person need not be completely introverted or extroverted.  One might lean toward extroversion with occasional introverted tendencies, or one might sit smack dab between the two extremes.

So why do we call this collection of four letters the "Myers-Briggs Type Indicator", you may well ask?  Well, basically, because the whole system was conceived of by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers during the second world war.  Apparently, each lady could only handle a maximum of two letters.  Putting together four required a joint effort.  But seriously, I found the Myers-Briggs concept interestingly enough that it has stayed with me over the years that have since passed and I've decided to record what I learned here, in the hopes that you, my readers, might share my fascination.  I'll warn you in advance that this post is going to be one of my longer ones and, even then, it will only give a cursory explanation of what Myers-Briggs is all about.  If you're pressed for time or looking for something a bit briefer and less involved, you can always skip to one of my shorter, less in-depth posts, like the one about the Dick Test.  For the rest of us, let's begin by looking at each of the four categories profiled by the MBTI and what each tells us about a person.

Introversion vs. Extroversion
Most of you probably think you know the difference between an introvert and an extrovert.  Introverts are generally perceived as insecure mama's boy, Norman Bates types who shut themselves away from the world until one day they show up at work wielding a double-barreled shotgun and a hatchet, whereas extroverts are seen as outgoing, loudmouthed used car salesman types who crush every hand that they shake and like to talk about themselves a lot. 

Actually, Myers-Briggs defines introversion vs. extroversion more in terms of where a person gets his or her energy or how a person "recharges his or her batteries".  Extroverts, according to Myers-Briggs, get energized by social interaction.  They crave surroundings with lots of other people and they frequently enjoy being the center of attention.  Solitude and silence saps their energy.  Introverts, on the other hand, crave solitude, quiet and reflection.  Social interaction wears them down.

To illustrate, our seminar instructor told us a story about a group of people that was asked to describe their perfect weekend getaway. The extroverts in the group spoke of parties, road trips, night clubs, hedonistic orgies and general merrymaking involving the company of others. The introverts, of course, described quiet, peaceful activities, either alone or with just one or two very close friends.

One particularly introverted woman described her perfect getaway as spending a quiet weekend alone with her husband at their cottage. In the mornings, they would share a light breakfast and a cup of coffee on the patio whilst taking in the soothing sound of the birds and the surf from the nearby lake. In the afternoons they might enjoy a bicycle ride through a nearby nature trail or perhaps some time on the lake in their sail boat. In the evenings they would have supper and share a bottle of wine with soft music playing in the background. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, they would return to their city home early enough so that there would be time to relax and recover from their "hectic" weekend.

Intuition vs. Sensing
The second letter in the MBTI tells us about how a person perceives the world around themselves.  On one end of the scale, we have intuition.  Intuitive people think in the abstract.  When they look at a scene or scenario, they don't always see what there is but, rather, what could be.  Intuitive people are all about possibilities.

Sensing people, on the other hand, are like Dragnet's Joe Friday.  They want the facts, ma'am, just the facts.  They are sticklers for detail.  They're concerned with what is, not with what might be. 

To illustrate, our group was shown a picture of a room full of chairs, arranged in rows and columns, all facing the same way and each person was asked to describe what they saw.  The intuitive people talked about concepts.  The room might be a live theatre or perhaps an auditorium where some public figure or acknowledged expert was about to give a speech.  They tended to miss details like the time indicated on a clock that was in the picture or whether the floor was hardwood or parquet or even the fact that the room happened to be on fire.  Okay, okay, the room wasn't really on fire.  If it had been, the intuitives might have commented that the room had a cozy atmosphere and might be pleasant on winter evenings.

The sensing people, on the other hand, did note the time shown on the clock.  They also described precisely how many rows and columns of chairs there were.  Many of them did the math and gave the exact total number of chairs.  Some of them noted that it was unclear as to whether there might be more chairs outside of the field of view, and that it was therefore impossible to determine the exact number of chairs in the room.  None of them worried about why the chairs were all empty or what the room's purpose was.  They reminded me of Spock from the old Star Trek series and the way in which he used to read out in exacting detail the size, mass, composition, closure speed and estimated time of impact, to the second, of the meteorite that was heading for the Enterprise's main bridge.  What might happen when the impact occurred seemed of secondary importance.

Thinking vs. Feeling
The next characteristic that Myers-Briggs looks at has to do with how a person makes decisions; either based on fact and observation (thinking) or by "gut feel" (feeling).  Thinkers are objective and detached.  They look at the facts.  They may refer to precedent.  They rely on logic.  Feelers often base their decisions on empathy.  They look for the intangible.  They put themselves in the shoes of the people that might be affected by a decision.  They rely more on their emotions.  They can often give no justification for their decisions other than "it felt like the right thing to do".  Thinkers hate when Feelers are right.

Consider the following scenario:  You have been tasked with hiring a computer security specialist for your organization.  One of the applicants that you interview is obviously extremely knowledgeable about networks, data encryption, firewalls and computer security concepts in general.  While being interviewed, he readily admits that his wealth of knowledge and experience comes from having been a hacker who managed to access the credit card data of a major bank's customers and defrauded the bank of hundreds of thousands of dollars before he was caught.  The jail time that he served convinced him to mend his ways and he now seeks to use his knowledge of computer security systems to prevent others like himself from circumventing them.  Do you hire him, or not?

A Feeler might empathize with the applicant.  He certainly has the credentials to do the job, and knowing the methods of the criminal world might prove an additional asset.  His free and open admission about his past and his prison record might be taken as evidence that this person has truly been reformed.  The Feeler's gut may well tell him to trust this applicant and give him a second chance.  The Feeler's gut may feel somewhat knotted the following month, however, when the new security specialist fails to report in one morning and it is discovered that the organization's bank accounts have been drained and closed, and the Feeler's boss wants to know what idiot decided to hire the crook.

A Thinker might look at the applicant's track record to date.  He's shown himself to be untrustworthy.  He is, in fact, a convicted felon.  This makes it all the more likely that his desire to reform is just a ruse and that his true goal is to gain access to the computer system so that he can defraud your organization too.  A Thinker might well send the applicant on his way and hire the next applicant, who appears equally competent but has no criminal record.  A Thinker might later learn that his reservations about the convicted felon were quite justified when the applicant whom he did hire turns out to be the felon's partner who also applied for the position, just in case it turned out that honesty wasn't the best policy after all.

Judgement vs. Perception
The last characteristic profiled by Myers-Briggs indicates a person's decision-making style.  Judging people prefer things settled and finished.  Perceptive people prefer to keep decisions open which, I suppose, is another way of saying that they're wishy-washy and indecisive, but "perceptive" sounds so much nicer, doesn't it?  Judging people, on the other hand, will tell you that it's much better to rush to a quick decision and then to doggedly follow through, never changing one's mind, no matter how the situation might change nor what new information may present itself.  "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts!" is their motto.

It's important to note that Myers-Briggs deals with proclivities and tendancies as opposed to actions. Each person has natural tendencies in the four areas concerned, but those tendancies can be overridden by conscious effort. A person may be naturally introverted, yet make a concerted effort to network and schmooze. An introvert can still act like an extrovert. Myers-Briggs concerns itself with what comes naturally to a person rather than how that person actually behaves.

There's a simple, yet effective demonstration of this concept that you can try right now, if you'll humor me for a moment. Take your hands from the keyboard, let go of your mouse and fold your arms across your chest. Go ahead. Do it.

Did you fold your arms? Good. Now fold them the other way; that is to say, if you folded your arms with the left forearm in front of the right forearm, this time fold them with the right forarm in front of the left one.

You probably managed that too, but it was a lot more awkward, wasn't it? You can fold your arms either way, but only one way comes natrually. The other requires concentration and effort and, even then, it still feels wrong.

Would you like to know your own Myers-Briggs type? You can find out by taking the test on-line here, where you'll not only learn your Myers-Briggs type but you can also get a detailed description of your profile and some examples of famous people who are also your type (yes, gentlemen, I'm sure you're all hoping that you turn out to be Heidi Klum's type). The test probably works best if you take it without any preconceptions. Having read this far, it will be obvious what some of the questions are trying to establish. Obviously, you'll get more accurate results by answering each question as honestly as possible.

After the Team Building seminar ended, one of my co-workers wondered aloud what the point of the Myers-Briggs test was.  "Why would I care whether Tom is an ESTJ or an ISFP?"  He was obviously in ISTJ, or possibly an ESTJ.  And therein lies the answer to his question.  Once one understands the Myers-Briggs profile, one can learn to recognize specific personality types.  This recognition, coupled with an understanding of the Myers-Briggs profile, enables us to understand what motivates the person, how that person thinks, how they arrive at decisions, indeed to predict what they will do in various situations.  This understanding, then, enables us to play them like a Stradivarius; to pull their puppet strings and make them dance to our tune; to manipulate and subjugate every person we encounter and, ultimately, to bend other puny mortals to our wills and ultimately rule the world!  MUHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!!!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Your Facebook!

Whenever I tell anyone about my blog, one of the first questions that I'm invariably asked is whether I'm on Facebook. I'm not on Facebook. Some find that odd and can't understand why not. They assume that anyone who blogs must surely also be on Facebook, as though blogging and social networking were pretty much synonymous. They're really not.

Facebook, MSN, Myspace and other such social networks are, by their nature, community-oriented services where large groups of people mingle and converse. Blogging is different. I just sit here, alone in my attic, thinking out loud at the world. Anyone who cares to listen is welcome and I invite comments and other feedback but, in a sense, blogging is a pretty introverted activity.

I'm an introvert at heart. I'm uncomfortable in a crowd. I don't particularly enjoy meeting new people, prefering instead to stick with a small group of familiar friends. Even then, I'm really not intereted in whether they happen to be feeling happy, sleepy, grumpy, bashful, dopey, sneezy or Doc at any given moment.  It's not that I don't care, it's just that every human being goes through shifting moods.  Most of us just deal with it quietly.  If there's an ongoing issue and you think I can be of help, or even just need a sympathetic ear, by all means, talk to me, but do it in person, not through some electronic social club.

Even some people who previously enjoyed Facebook have gotten disillusioned with the service because they find that they can't turn it off, according to a Waterloo Region Record article from some time ago.  These people found that, having created a Facebook account and joined a few groups, they couldn't stop incoming messages inviting them to play games, take quizzes or broadcasting the transient moods of any number of "friends" whom they barely knew.  It's like Jim Varney's annoying Ernest P. Worrell character who keeps popping up everywhere in those old 'eighties TV commercials, "KnowhutImeanVern?" 

Then there are those annoying virtual "pokes".  In the real world, anyone who continually pokes us soon finds themselves on the receiving end of an exasperated "Stop that, willya???"  What Facebook really needs is a virtual cuff across the back of the head to send back in response.

Then, of course, there's Facebook's famous "wall". All through the seventies, while I was growing up, Roger Waters and friends kept telling me that The Wall is a bad thing! In fact, today, they might have this to say:

We don't need no social networks
We don't need no fanboy zones
No online rants by neo Nazis
Facebook leave them kids alone
Hey! Facebook! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just more mindless crap on the Wall
Of course, there are the ever-present privacy concerns.  Facebook itself has acknowledged privacy holes in the past.  Of course, they claim to have patched these up and assure all that the network is now completely secure, but that's sort of like fixing the dyke after the city's been flooded, isn't it?  Then there's the lingering doubt about how secure one's personal info really is.  That having been said, privacy concerns aren't really what keeps me away from Facebook. For one thing, I figure anybody who broadcasts their friends, family, personal photographs, interests and even momentary moods online really shouldn't have too much expectation of privacy.  Besides that, I'm cynical enough to believe that the concept of privacy is a myth in our electronic data-oriented society. A half hour and perhaps a few dollars spent on on-line searches will give you most peoples' mailing addresses, phone numbers and even credit histories, criminal records (if any) and family members.  Google my name and you'll come up with several links and references, but Facebook won't be one of them.