Saturday, May 30, 2009

Victim of the Recession

I had just come out of a grocery store recently when a lady roughly my own age approached me in the parking lot. She was thin and somewhat frail looking. Her face was lined and care-worn and she seemed on the verge of tears.

"Excuse me, sir, could you please help me?" she said. I asked her what I could do for her.

"My name is Cheryl", she answered. "I was layed off from work. I need to go in there to buy some food. I have two daughters at home. Please, could you help me? I'm not a bum."

Indeed, this lady certainly didn't seem like your average panhandler, those unkempt, dirty men who sit against the walls of public buildings, reeking of alcohol and harassing the passers-by for spare change. She seemed credible. My heart went out to her.I handed her about eight dollars in change that I found in the pockets of my jeans. She thanked me, and I continued to my car to unload my shopping cart full of groceries. I watched her as I pulled out of the parking lot and saw that she was still approaching others. Well, eight dollars will hardly feed a mother and her two daughters.

Thinking back on it now, what I should have done was to accompany her into the grocery store, invite her to buy whatever provisions she needed, and pay for them. I've been lucky. The recession hasn't touched me ... yet. I could have easily afforded a few extra groceries for this woman and her daughters, and I could have solved her immediate problem and spared her the indignity of having to approach others for a financial handout, but I was preoccupied with my own affairs. I had a shopping cart full of groceries to load into my car. We were having family over for dinner in a few hours and I still had other things to prepare. I didn't want to take the time to do more for this unfortunate than I already had.

I believe that this recession will get worse before it gets better. Many honest, well-intentioned, hard-working people will lose their jobs and some of those will find it necessary to depend on the goodwill of strangers. Our political and business leaders have shown themselves to be woefully incapable of helping. Many of them are more a part of the problem than the solution.

The gap between the "Have's" and the "Have Not's" grows ever wider. The same parking lot where I met Cheryl was abundant with large, expensive SUVs. The owners of some of those may well have been the same people who decided to lay Cheryl off. Perhaps they collected large bonuses for doing so.

This recession didn't come about because of a lack of wealth. It came about because of greed, and the inequitable distribution of an overabundance of wealth. It is the direct result of people thinking only of their own interests, and failing to think long-term. As long as the next month-end balance sheet looks good, who cares about next year? That's someone else's problem.

Let's face it; it's not in the interest of the wealthy to share with the less fortunate, and those with money tend to influence government, so it's naive to expect a more equitable society in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I believe our best hope is for common people to help each other by sharing their resources, their time and their talent. Give a few dollars to those charitable organizations whose envelopes land in your mailbox once in a while. Lend a hand to one of the many non-profit organizations that are always looking for volunteers. Most importantly, if you bump into someone like Cheryl, show a little compassion. There, but for the grace of God, as they say, goes you.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Unhealthy Preferences

I've hinted in earlier posts on this blog that I could stand to lose some weight. I'm working on it. Nothing radical. I'm not a believer in fad diets. I'm just focusing on increased exercise, smaller portions and healthier food choices.

One thing I've changed is the lunches that I take to work. I used to take two luncheon meat sandwiches, some type of fruit, a soft drink (not diet) and a granola bar or a few cookies or something like that. Now, I take a bottle of garden cocktail, fruit and a granola bar or cookies or whatever. Basically, I've replaced the bread and luncheon meats with vegetable juice and I've dropped the soft drink. I figure I'm getting my daily serving of fruits and vegetables and losing the unhealthy stuff.

I don't mind this particular adjustment. I actually enjoy the garden cocktail, but it seems to be an exception to the rule. Normally, I just don't like healthier foods. I prefer enriched white bread over whole wheat or rye bread. I prefer a honey cruller over a bran muffin. I dislike diet soft drinks because aspartame leaves a weird after-taste.

It would be so much easier to adopt a healthy diet if we naturally preferred healthy foods. For the most part, I don't think we do. I suspect it's a safe bet that most people, if presented with a choice between a cheeseburger and a salad, would be naturally inclined to choose the cheeseburger. Some people may end up choosing the salad, either for health reasons or because they're vegetarian or vegan or whatever but, if people were to choose solely on the basis of which food they found more appealing or tempting, I have to believe that the cheeseburger would win, buns down.

If I'm right, this suggests that human beings are naturally wired to prefer unhealthy foods or, at least, less healthy foods. The preference for meat over fruits and vegetables may have to do with the fact that we're natural carnivores or, at least, omnivores. Show a cheeseburger and a head of lettuce to a rabbit, and it will eat the lettuce. A dog, on the other hand, will eat the cheeseburger. Nature programs us with certain preferences.

Suppose we make it a choice between fried chicken and boiled, skinless chicken. Now it's no longer a choice between meat vs. plants. Both choices are now meat. They're even the same kind of meat. And yet, I bet most would choose the fried chicken over the boiled, even though the boiled is technically healthier.

It seems to me that mother nature has a mean streak. She designed us to be drawn to things that aren't good for us. Imagine how much healthier and happier we'd all be if we had a natural preference for the right foods. No more guilt over enjoying a snack. Go ahead! Eat all the rutabaga you like.

Of course, this would radically alter the way in which restaurants cater to their customers. At the McDonald's drive through, you might overhear something like:

Drive-thru Attendant: Welcome to McDonald's! How can I help you?

Customer: Uh, yeah, I'd like a McTofu Meal, please.

Drive-thru Attendant: Certainly, sir. Would you care to super-size that today?

Customer: Extra bean curd? Sure. I'll walk on the wild side. And can I get a soy shake instead of the prune juice?

Drive-thru Attendant: No problem. That'll be $8.50. Please drive through to the pickup window.

Unfortunately, we're not naturally inclined to want the things that are good for us, which leaves us only willpower and self-discipline; two things that I was never very good at.

It's too bad that the Ludovico Technique used in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is fictitious, otherwise we could reprogram ourselves. Imagine being strapped to a chair with your eyelids clamped open, being forced to watch McDonald's commercials while getting violently ill. That'd cure the desire for junk food, alright.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Balsillie vs. Bettman

Time for me to sound off with my thoughts on this whole kerfuffle regarding Jim Balsillie's bid to purchase the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes and bring them to Canada. I'll start right out by admitting that I'm Canadian, and I live in Balsillie's neck of the woods, so my opinion will obviously be biased in his favour (note the Canadian spelling of "favoUr", eh?) I'll also state, for the record, that I'm not heavily into professional sports of any kind, hockey being the only one in which I have even a mild interest. Even so, I hardly ever watch the games and I only follow the season by way of news reports and hearsay. As a sports fan (or non-fan), I really couldn't care less what happens to the Coyotes. As a Canadian, I care a great deal.

Now that that's out of the way, I can state, with a clear conscience, my opinion that Gary Bettman is a pompous, manipulative hosehead with a greatly over-exaggerated sense of self-importance.

Why in the name of Gordie Howe would the NHL Commissioner object to saving a bankrupt franchise by moving it from a place where no market exists for it (which is why the team is now bankrupt ... Duh!) to a place where there is a strong, thriving market for it? Because the strong, thriving market is in Canada, that's why. Bettman strikes me as just another arrogant Yank who can't stand the idea of America's northern neighbour doing anything better than the good old U.S. of A.

Bettman's main argument against Balsillie's acquisition of the team is that he (Balsillie) is trying to circumvent the NHL's rules in moving the Coyotes to Canada. Well, when the rules are designed to put you at a disadvantage, you sometimes have no alternative but to skirt them, if not break them outright. Seems odd that neither Bettman himself nor his vaunted rules had any objection to moving the Quebec Nordique to Colorado back in '95. Ah, but that involved moving a Canadian franchise to the U.S., and that changes the whole picture, doesn't it?

Bettman cited a concern that the NHL's Board of Governors might not approve Balsillie as a suitable franchise owner. "I don't know whether or not he could get approved," Bettman said. "That's, as I said, something I don't get a vote on. If in fact it becomes an issue for board consideration, the board of governors of the league will make that decision."

Sounds like passing the puck ... er, I mean, the buck ... to me. I'm not the obstacle here. It's that darned Board of Governors. Well, has anybody asked them? And who's on the Board of Governors, anyway? More U.S. fat cats? Hardly sounds either fair or objective to me.

It seems to me that hockey has become more about money and politics than about the game, which probably explains why people like myself, who admire the game, can't be bothered the follow the professional league.

I'm struck by the curious similarities between the Balsillie/Bettman feud and the movie, Bon Cop Bad Cop. For those not familiar with the movie, it's about a pair of detectives; Martin Ward, from Ontario, and David Bouchard, from Quebec, who become reluctant partners when they are assigned to investigate the murder of a hockey tycoon who had been instrumental in moving a Canadian team to the United States. More murders of hockey officials ensue and it soon becomes clear that the detectives are on the trail of a serial killer bent on punishing league officials guilty of moving Canadian hockey teams south of the border.

The killer's ultimate target turns out to be the league commissioner himself, one "Harry Buttman", who is on the verge of committing the ultimate sin, moving the Montreal team to the States. Although he is a target, Buttman is portrayed in the movie as arrogant, deceptive and altogether unlikeable. I found it particularly amusing that Buttman is played by Richard Howland, a midget, which I interpret as the director portraying the Hockey Commissioner as, quite literally, a small man. Ward and Bouchard end up tying him up, stuffing him into a body bag and locking him in the trunk of a car, "for his own protection", but can't help enjoying the activity. Maybe that's the kind of therapy that Mr. Bettman needs.

Before I get back on topic, I'll digress just a little further by highly recommending Bon Cop Bad Cop to those who haven't yet seen it. It's one of the most enjoyable Canadian made movies I've ever seen. It captures, better than any other movie I've seen, Canada's Anglophone/Francophone split personality, and the ever-present tension between the two cultures. It's a riveting drama liberally imbued with dashes of uniquely Canadian humour. It should be required viewing for any Americans who still picture Canadians as beer-swilling, French-speaking lumberjacks whose cops all ride around on horseback. (Well, okay, everybody in this movie happens to be fluent in French, including the English-speaking detective from Ontario, so I guess the movie doesn't do much to dispel that particular Canadian stereotype).

Getting back to reality, Jim Balsillie argues that his bid to acquire the Coyotes is about "The passion that Canadians feel for the game of hockey." Quite right. Hockey is Canada's game, much moreso than America's. Everybody knows that. It's a part of the Canadian identity. America took the Nordique from us and they took Gretzky. This is us, taking our national identity back. Don't stand in our way, Bettman. We may not stuff you in any car trunks, Canadians are much too polite for that, but some of us would be more than happy to come down there and demonstrate a proper "jersey pull" for you.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Kids On Moms

I usually avoid re-publishing other peoples' work on this blog. Yes, everything you've read here to date, Dear Reader, is 100% original material, written by myself, available exclusively on this blog, and no-where else. Don't you feel privileged?

As it's Mothers' Day tomorrow, and I have no better ideas, I'm making an exception this weekend and re-publishing something that was sent to me by e-mail. It's a list of insights about mothers, according to a group of second-graders that were interviewed on the subject. Out of the mouths of babes, as they say...

Why did God make mothers?
  1. She's the only one who knows where the scotch tape is.
  2. Mostly to clean the house.
  3. To help us out of there when we were getting born.
How did God make mothers?

  1. He used dirt, just like for the rest of us.
  2. Magic plus super powers and a lot of stirring
  3. God made my Mum just the same like he made me. He Just used bigger parts.
What ingredients are mothers made of?

  1. God makes mothers out of clouds and angel hair and everything nice in the world and one dab of mean.
  2. They had to get their start from men's bones. Then they mostly use string, I think.
Why did God give you Your mother & not some other mum?

  1. We're related
  2. God knew she likes me a lot more than other people's mums like me.
What kind of little girl was your mum?

  1. My mum has always been my mum and none of that other stuff.
  2. I don't know because I wasn't there, but my guess would be pretty bossy.
  3. They say she used to be nice.
What did mum need to know about dad before she married him?

  1. His last name.
  2. She had to know his background. Like is he a crook?
  3. Does he get drunk on beer?
  4. Does he make at least $800 a year?
  5. Did he say NO to drugs and YES to chores?
Why did your mum marry your dad?

  1. My dad makes the best spaghetti in the world. And my Mum eats a lot.
  2. She got too old to do anything else with him.
  3. My grandma says that Mum didn't have her thinking cap on.
Who's the boss at your house?

  1. Mum doesn't want to be boss, but she has to because dad's such a goof ball.
  2. Mum. You can tell by room inspection. She sees the stuff under the bed.
  3. I guess Mum is, but only because she has a lot more to do than dad.
What's the difference between mums & dads?

  1. Mums work at work and work at home & dads just go to work at work.
  2. Mums know how to talk to teachers without scaring them.
  3. Dads are taller & stronger, but mums have all the real power 'cause that's who you got to ask if you want to sleep over at your friend's.
  4. Mums have magic, they make you feel better without medicine.
What does your mum do in her spare time?

  1. Mothers don't do spare time.
  2. To hear her tell it, she pays bills all day long.
What would it take to make your mum perfect?

  1. On the inside she's already perfect. Outside, I think some kind of plastic surgery.
  2. Diet. You know, her hair. I'd diet, maybe blue.
If you could change one thing about your Mum, what would it be?
  1. She has this weird thing about me keeping my room clean. I'd get rid of that.
  2. I'd make my Mum smarter. Then she would know it was my sister who did it and not me.
  3. I would like for her to get rid of those invisible eyes on the back of her head.

And with that, I extend my wishes for a very happy Mothers' Day to all mothers everywhere. Especially mine.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


"Nobody ever got anywhere in the world by simply being content."

This quote is attributed to Louis L'Amour, a writer best known for his frontier adventure stories. From what I've read of Mr. L'Amour, he knew his share of hard times and adversity, and he certainly managed to rise above it and make a name for himself.

Mr. L'Amour is certainly worthy of admiration, and I think that most would agree with his philosophy. It suggests that we must constantly strive to improve our lives and ourselves. It warns against complacency and stagnation. We've heard the same sentiment expressed many times in other ways. "A rolling stone gathers no moss," as the saying goes.

The trouble with this philosophy, as I see it, is that it sets up its adherents for perpetual dissatisfaction. We can never be satisfied that our accomplishments are "good enough". The moment we do so, we are seen as quitters; lazy and lacking in ambition. No matter how much we have, no matter what we achieve, no matter how high we ascend the ladder, we must always reach for that next rung.

Is contentment really such a vice? Is it so wrong to be happy with our lives as they are, and not to want more? When do we relax, and just enjoy the fruits of our labors?

Recently, my brother-in-law suggested that I consider upgrading to a larger house. I live in an older three-bedroom bungalow, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I like my house. There's plenty of room for my wife, my daughter and me. We have a small, one-car garage which suffices because we only have one car. There are things that I'd like to renovate or improve (we desperately need new kitchen cabinets) but I have absolutely no desire for a larger, more modern house. I'm happy here. This is good enough. I'm content. Should I feel guilty?

I'm a computer programmer/analyst by profession. I'm reasonably happy with my job. I enjoy my work, but I'm no workaholic. I put in my 40 hours a week and then I go home. I don't work a lot of extra hours unless it's absolutely necessary. I'm not working on any revolutionary inventions, I'll never be recognized as one of Canada's great writers (or even bloggers), I'll never find a cure for cancer and I'll never win nor even be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. I'm just another cog in the wheel and, for the most part, I'm content to be so.

I believe that we can't all be great. The world needs its garbage collectors, its janitors, it's pizza delivery men and its insurance salesmen just as much as it needs its leaders, its rocket scientists and its visionaries. The wheel needs its cogs as much as it needs the engine that turns it.

I once heard a comedian (I forget which one) make the following observation. Did you ever notice that those people who claim to have lived before were always somebody famous? Everybody was once Caesar or Napoleon or Cleopatra. Nobody was ever the guy who used to clean the horse droppings off the streets in a previous life.

There's nothing wrong with striving to better ourselves, our lives or the world in which we live. I humbly suggest, though, that there's nothing wrong with being content with what we have either.