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 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


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.