Thursday, February 26, 2009


I've mentioned my daughter, Jessica, on this blog. I used to have a son named Christopher, too. Christopher was born prematurely. His first few weeks of life were fraught with problems. He couldn't breath on his own. He was weak. There was internal bleeding in his brain, which caused excess pressure inside of his skull. A shunt had to be surgically installed to drain the fluid from his brain and ease the pressure. All this would be traumatic for a fully-grown adult, to say nothing of a new-born baby.

Christopher proved strong enough to survive these ailments, but they did leave their scars. He was severely afflicted with cerebral palsy for his entire life. He passed away, four years ago today, because of complications from his condition, at the tender age of fifteen.

We all know the story of the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. The Grinch hated Christmas, and he wanted everyone else to hate it too – and he decided that he could make that happen by taking away from the Who’s all the seemingly good things about Christmas; all those things that would seem to make Christmas worthwhile. The gifts, the toys, the Christmas trees and decorations – even all of the food.

Having taken away all of these things, the Grinch waited in anticipation as the sun rose on Christmas Day, expecting to hear the Who’s wailing and lamenting. But then, something unexpected and wonderful happened. Instead of crying, the Grinch heard the Who’s singing.

Christopher was deprived from birth of many of the things that would seem essential to a happy, meaningful existence. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t even sit up unsupported. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t feed himself or play with most toys. He couldn’t change channels on TV and was at the mercy of whatever his sister decided to watch most of the time.

It would have been perfectly understandable if Christopher had been a sullen, unhappy, withdrawn little boy. He could have cried and complained most of the time, and who could have blamed him? One might almost expect it.

And yet, he didn’t. In fact, he had a smile that could light up a room. He found pleasure in the smallest, simplest of things. A nice, warm bath. A cuddle in an easy chair with mom or dad. Even the simple jostling of his wheelchair when it rolled over rough or uneven ground elicited giggles and laughs.

And just like the Who’s taught the Grinch that there was more to Christmas than gifts and decorations and food, Christopher taught everyone whose life that he touched that living is good and worthwhile, even when most of what’s taken for granted by everyone else is missing. Christopher knew a secret that few people know. And though he couldn’t talk, he tried to tell it to us anyway.

One of Christopher's most striking features was his large, expressive blue eyes. Thinking about those eyes inspired me to make a photo slideshow in his memory about a month after he passed away. On this, the anniversary of his passing, I've decided to share it with others by posting it on YouTube and here on my blog. I think that it expresses more poignantly than any words can what he meant to me and to the rest of his family and how much we all miss him. Here it is.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Toy Story

The fair-haired, pouty little man in the picture to your left is me, at the age of three. The apprehensive-looking imp next to me is my little sister, Klaudia.

This past Christmas, I bought my mother one of those digital picture frames; you know, the kind that displays a continuous slide show of digitized photos. Mom doesn't own a computer, so she handed me a bunch of her favorite old photographs and asked me to scan them to the picture frame's memory chip. It was in the process of doing this that I came upon the picture that you see here.

See that big, beautiful jet airplane that I'm clutching? I remember that jet plane. It's a battery-operated toy, made by the Louis Marx company back in the fifties (although this picture was taken in 1965) and it was beautiful!

I only had it for about two weeks, yet it stands out in my memory as one of my favorite toys ever. When you turned it on and set it on the floor, the jet engines would flash on and off with red light. The airplane would emit a high-pitched whine, as though the turbines were spooling up. Then the wheels would turn and the jet would roll across the floor. After a short distance, it would stop, the jet engines would flash, engine pitch would change and the nose would swing around, changing the jet's direction. Then the wheels would engage again, the jet would taxi off on its new trajectory, and the whole sequence would repeat.

This airplane was a Christmas present. To maximize the impact on my wondering eyes, my father wisely chose not to wrap the box and put it under the tree. Rather, he unpacked the airplane, put in some batteries and, just before I entered the room to open my presents, he turned it on and set it on the floor. The first thing that I saw was this big, beautiful jet plane trundling toward me, eager to greet its new owner.

Perhaps you wondered, Dear Reader, why I only had this wondrous toy for a scant two weeks, and whatever happened to it. Sadly, the high-pitched noise that it emitted when activated proved to be its undoing ... literally! The shriek of the engines frightened my younger sister, who ran from the room whenever the airplane was active. But Klaudia was always, by nature, a strong-willed girl. Not one to shrink, cowering, from her tormentor, she kept a safe distance, bided her time, and waited...

The first moment that she saw the jet plane alone, powered down and unable to defend itself, and without big brother to protect it, she boldly picked it up and tore all four engines off of their mountings, effectively silencing the beast forever. Even my father, a man of no small mechanical aptitude, was unable to repair the damage. I don't recall how long after that we kept the derelict aircraft before finally relegating it to the dustbin of history but, for obvious reasons, the fun had gone out of it, and soon we laid it to its final rest in some city landfill.

I couldn't have told you until very recently when this jet plane was manufactured, or by what company. I didn't take note of such things at the tender age of three, and the images of the airplane and its box had faded in my memory over the ensuing forty-three years. All that changed when I came upon the old photograph at the beginning of this post. Notice that the box in which the airplane came is partially visible behind me. A quick Google search using some of the text on the box as keywords, cross-referenced with a Google image search, soon led me to a web page bearing the image that you see to your right, along with information as to the toy's origin and nature. No doubt about it, this was my long-lost airplane!

In a seemingly serendipitous twist, the web site in question happened to be, and this very toy was being auctioned just then. What's more, it appeared to be in very good condition. I placed a few bids on it, but the price soon exceeded what I was willing to pay for sentimentality. In the end, the prize eluded me.

I told several friends and family members of my discovery, and all were very supportive and encouraging with regard to my attempts to obtain it after all these years. Even my mother, a normally frugal woman who tends to take a dim view of monetary expenditures for frivolous wants, agreed that an investment of up to $100 would not be unwarranted in the interest of reviving this particular childhood memory. My sister, who I suspect has always felt a certain pang of guilt over having destroyed one of her older brother's most cherished toys, devoutly hoped that I would prevail in my pursuit, and unabashedly asked to "play with" the airplane, should I prove successful.

I told some of my closer co-workers at the office of my discovery. Other less intimate acquaintances there inevitably overheard me. I was amazed at the interest shown by all. Various people would ask about the status of my quest several times per day.

One particular co-worker, a Vietnamese chap named Duc, related the story of one of his most cherished childhood toys after hearing my story. His was a tank, which he owned while still a small boy living in Vietnam. Like my long-lost jet plane, Duc's tank was battery operated, rolled along the ground and featured flashing lights and, I think, sounds. Duc's toy made him the envy of all the neighborhood children, as this sort of possession was practically unheard of in Vietnam during the 1960's. Duc's father only managed to acquire it by a sheer stroke of luck. Someone he knew, perhaps a friend or family member, had travelled to Europe, and had brought the tank back with him.

The chief revelation that I take away from all this is the surprising effect that toys have over our emotions. I suppose this is because, being childhood possessions, they remain a link to our inner children, even after childhood has long since passed. More than that, they are a conduit to the people, places and feelings that we associated with their presence in our lives.

Is there a favorite toy in your past? Why not leave a comment, and tell me and my other readers about it?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Family Day Poll

If you read the comments attached to my previous post ("Family Day"), you'll note that Martin and I had a mini discussion on the subject, part of which centered around the question of whether or not most Ontarians are able to enjoy the holiday.

I had originally suspected that more people than not had to work that day, although I readily admitted that I had no stats to back that up. Based on Martin's observation regarding the number of people out snowboarding in Thunder Bay that day, I may have been wrong.

So let's take an unscientific poll. If you're an Ontarian, leave a comment indicating whether you had to work on Family Day, without extra compensation, or whether it was a holiday for you. Working for extra pay counts as it being a holiday.

Incidentally, Martin, who is a teacher, pointed out that, although he did get the day off, he'll have to teach one extra day before the summer break in order to make up for it. In fact, I also had the day off, but I had to "buy" it by cashing in hours that my employer owed me for overtime previously worked. I said that I had to work that day (yes, I lied) because I didn't want to cloud the argument. My point is that Family Day does not count as a holiday if you were given the day off, but had to make it up in some other way, either like Martin or I did, or by giving up an alternate holiday; a practice which some employers also used.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Family Day

Today Ontario celebrates its second annual Family Day. For the benefit of any non-Canadians, or even non-Ontarians, for that matter, I should explain that Family Day is a civic holiday, introduced by Ontario's provincial government, just last year. It's observed on the third Monday of February and, as the name implies, its purpose is to give families a day's respite from work in order that they may spend time together. Family Day was introduced in order to make good on a campaign promise, made by Premier Dalton McGuinty before his government was elected, to introduce a new civic holiday.

True to his word, Mr. McGuinty wasted no time in announcing the new civic holiday shortly after his election. Too bad he screwed it up as only a true politician can. Family Day was introduced as a civic holiday, rather than as a statutory holiday. Statutory holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, New Year's Day and such, are mandatory. Employers have no choice but to either allow their employees to stay home with pay on those holidays, or offer extra compensation to those who are asked to work. Not necessarily so in the case of civic holidays.

Ontario's Employment Standards Act mandates that employers must grant their employees a minimum of 13 paid holidays per year. Any more than that can be either granted or withheld at the employer's discretion. Government institutions, schools and organizations with strong unions tend to be fairly generous about granting paid holidays of this type. Most other organizations (the ones that are actually dependent upon profits for their continued existence) are not. That's how we get what the English like to call "Bank holidays"; holidays that tend to be observed by banks, schools, postal workers and civil servants, but not by the majority of working people.

So Family Day has, in effect, become yet another "bank holiday" and, as such, not all employers honour it. Some of us get it, some of us don't. In fact, I suspect that most of us don't, although I admit to having no statistics to support that theory. As a result, very few families actually get to observe Family Day together. Stop and absorb that, for a moment. Family Day has accomplished very little in terms of actually promoting family togetherness.

Beyond simply creating a ridiculous situation in principal, Family Day has actually caused a few practical problems. For example, since schools do observe this new holiday, many parents with younger school-aged children whose employers don't observe the holiday are now left with the burden of finding and paying for an extra day of child care on that day.

Further, on Feb. 18th, 2008, the first day that Family Day was observed, several traffic offenders were scheduled to appear in court since it was uncertain at the time if or when the new civic holiday would, in fact, be introduced. Any offenders whose court date had to be postponed because of the holiday could, in theory, have argued to have their charges dismissed due to the "undue delay". In a worst-case scenario, a person charged with driving under the influence could have walked away scot free, as they say.

Snow removal has also become an issue. Should there be a heavy snowfall on Family Day or the night before, which is not at all unlikely in February, Ontario being, after all, a part of the Great White North and all, municipalities would have no choice but to send out the plows since, as I've noted, most people still need to get to work on that day. Those plow drivers, being municipal employees, would then have to be paid extra for working that day, thus costing municipalities, and ultimately taxpayers, more money.

So then, let's review, shall we? Family Day has become an extra paid holiday for civil servants. It has cost both governments and working parents more money. It has not promoted family togetherness. Good job, Mr. McGuinty! You're really batting a thousand on this one!

The question in my mind is whether all this is the result of Premier McGuinty's failure to think the issue through before implementing Family Day or did he, as my more cynical, conspiracy-minded self is inclined to suspect, implement it as is with the full awareness of the loophole that he was leaving for employers to exploit, creating the perception that he tried to keep his campaign promise in good faith, whilst laying the blame for any negative side effects at the feet of the "greedy, heartless corporations"? Hanlon's Razor advises us to "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" so I suppose I it would be most charitable of me to assume Mr. McGuinty to be a fool.

I do like to leave off on a positive note where possible, so here's wishing all the best to those who have been able to take advantage of this day in order to strengthen their family bonds and spend some well-deserved time away from work and in each others' company. That goes for the both of you.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Saint Obama?

I like what I've seen of President Barack Obama so far but ... wow! According to this picture, there may be more to the man than anyone has guessed! I have to give credit where it's due; Scott Adams' blog pointed me at this particular pic.

I've already expressed admiration for the man in general (Barack Obama, not Scott Adams, although I do hold Adams in fairly high regard as well), and particularly for his criticism of the greedy Wall Street fat cats for lining their pockets with bonuses while the rest of us pay the price for their excesses. Since then, President Obama has put the proverbial kibosh on those same bonuses, freezing Wall Street salaries until such time as the economy turns around or, as he himself put it, until the taxpayers have been repaid. Three Cheers!

As commendable as these things are, this past week I came across another story which impressed me more than anything else I've heard or read thus far and, ironically, it has to do with Obama's first mistake since being elected President. He has gone to great lengths to surround himself with the best and brightest minds that he can find. Unfortunately, some of those whom he selected had questionable pasts and conflicts of interest that disqualified them from their posts.

Tom Daschle, Obama's pick for the post of Health and Human Services Secretary had failed to report certain income for consulting work and personal use of a car and driver on his tax returns between 2005 and 2007. He had also incorrectly deducted charitable contributions which were not eligible.

Nancy Killefer was nominated for the post of Chief Performance Officer, but also had to step aside because the DC government had filed a tax lien on her home in 2005 for failing to pay unemployment tax for her household servants.

Some might wonder what's the big deal. Both Daschle and Killefer had belatedly made good on their taxes, and goodness knows we've seen politicians and civil servants forgiven transgressions seemingly much more grievous than these. However, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is notoriously harsh with ordinary citizens who make even honest mistakes on their tax returns, and President Obama did not want to create the perception of a double-standard. "Ultimately," he said, "it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules -- you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes."

Not content to simply correct these errors, President Obama then did an amazing thing. He invited representatives of several news networks into the oval office, one by one, for brief interviews in which he took full responsibility for the debacle, making comments like "I screwed up" and "I'm frustrated with myself, with our team". He then pledged to right the situation and to ensure that nothing like this happens again. "I'm here on television saying I screwed up, and that's part of the era of responsibility. It's not never making mistakes; it's owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them and that's what we intend to do."

How refreshing is that? A politician with the integrity to admit that he's not perfect and to accept responsibility for his mistakes. It may not seem like that much. It may seem no more than the American people have a right to expect from their leader. Sadly, it's an exceedingly rare thing nowadays, not only in the United States but around the world. Here's hoping that other world leaders sit up, take notice, and follow President Obama's example.