Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cult of Apollo in the modern day

One of my boy's teachers this year is a tanning addict. Don't get me wrong, she's a great teacher, but every time I see her I can't take my eyes off her sun-scorched face. Nor is this the wide-eyed leer you might give to the beautiful; no, it's more akin to the surreptitious urge to simultaneously look and not-look at the freaks you'd encounter in a carnival sideshow circa 1920. She tans a LOT, is what I'm trying to say.

Tanning is crazy. I’m not saying everyone who tans is certifiable, but there is no doubt that the dedicated effort to darkening one’s own flesh using the sun is lunatic behaviour.
Why do it? Why, why, why? For vitamin D? Balderdash, I say (that’s right, I’m using the bad words now). Ten minutes in the summer sun gets you all the D you need, while staying out all day in the winter isn’t enough anyway if you’re a northern resident (hence vitamin D pills, amazing, simple, and virtually guaranteed not to make your face look like a catcher’s mitt).
You can’t claim it’s because tanners worship the sun since you can actually stay out in the sun longer if you use sunscreen. The only other reason is fetishizing that brown colour, so similar to the shade of chicken skin when it’s been perfectly roasted. And it should look similar because that’s just what is happening to you, with one critical exception: sitting in an oven won’t cause cancer.
Of course trying to scare an addict with cancer is pointless. It doesn’t work with smokers, so why should it work with sun-tanners? Since addiction to tanning has its roots in vanity, we should really use another tactic. Display pictures of that creepy woman from Something About Mary to try and explain just what you’re going to look like in thirty years. To say the flesh of a person becomes “leathery” after decades of systematic sun exposure is understating matters a great deal.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Sure, the sun may be 150 million kilometers away, but that baby burns at 5500 degrees Celsius and puts out more energy every second than a trillion nuclear bombs. It’s a powerful sucker. Don’t mess with it, man!
But wait, you say, I tan using a tanning booth. That’s safe. Pffft to that. Tanning beds primarily emit UVA radiation, which is the one that penetrates our epidermis most deeply and is therefore tied most closely with life-threatening melanomas and cancers. Not that UVB is a picnic, either, since it’s the one that tends to cause that lobster-red shade all the chubby white dudes are wearing during their first week of Florida holiday. Tanning beds increase your lifetime chance to get skin cancer by 75%.
Sorry. I forgot. Cancer isn’t a deterrent. Looking like you’re seventy when you’re only thirty doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone, either. Compare that to all of us pasty-faced nerds with milky white flesh undamaged by something so dangerous as outdoor activity. A lifetime of lurking in basements has preserved our youthful appearance, suckers! Unfortunately, a steady diet of Doritos and Jolt has destroyed our youthful bodies.
You win some, you lose some.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Back to work! (It's the law)

I caught a portion of the parliamentary debates this afternoon (yes, I occasionally watch our politicians politely harangue each other). The motion on the table was the back-to-work legislation for postal workers.
Any time a government steps in to disrupt (even with the best of intentions) the normal functioning of the collective bargaining system, it is bound to be a contentious issue. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the relative positions of CUPW or Canada Post. As with virtually any argument, both sides probably have valid points to make. That isn't the point of this post. What struck me while watching parliament was the terribly one-sided, blatantly partisan, attitude the government was taking.
Yes, the government is right-wing. That means they are to unions as cobras are to mongooses (my instinct is to incorrectly write the plural of that as “mongEESE”). Nevertheless, isn’t it possible to put forward this legislation without turning it into a circus of anti-union propaganda? The point should be to restore an essential service, not to turn this into a “who’s to blame” session. Plus, if you’re going to blame someone, it would be nice if you at least got your facts straight and didn’t spread wholesale lies.
The MP I saw (Larry Miller) read several letters from his constituents bemoaning the ungrateful postal workers. How dare they want more in an economic climate of belt-tightening! It isn’t fair to the rural communities to be without their mail, so the workers should stand up and do their jobs. They should just be happy they have jobs at all when so many are without. Clearly, if only there was no union we would all be getting our daily mail without interruption.
Which is, of course, a huge load of crap. CUPW began with nothing more than a rolling strike to bring attention to the issues at hand. Mail service was hardly impacted. During the rolling strike I sent a parcel to England (just happenstance, it wasn’t a purposeful test or anything). Not only did it arrive, it showed up a day earlier than the Canada Post guarantee. Clearly the system wasn’t being crippled by the action taken by the union.
It is the company itself that escalated matters, first by delivering mail only three days instead of five, then with a complete shutdown. In other words, the mail stopped flowing because of management, not the union. When this very point was presented to MP Miller, he accused his opponent of slinging “half-truths” and misdirections. (I suppose it can be very misdirecting to use the truth when your goal is to conceal it.) He further "defended" his position by saying that it was the union that had started the job action, the "he started it" argument that ceased working on my parents around the same time I learned to use the words. Clearly the government has decided the message we hear should be that the union is to blame, so curse CUPW and all it stands for. Unions are greedy, destroying companies and economies with their unending demands for more.
How wearying.
There is a perception out there that unions are insatiably avaricious, that somehow if you already have it better than some, daring to want more is a sign of moral corruption. If simply desiring to improve one’s lot is the definition of greed, I’d venture to say we are all guilty. The most common argument I hear is that “union workers already make X dollars a year!” Somehow earning enough to afford a mortgage is sinful, apparently. If this argument were pursued to its (il)logical end, anyone above the poverty line should donate the excess to the less fortunate. It is dismissive and simplistic, not to mention grossly unfair, to paint unions as cackling pork-barrel gluttons. Let’s remember, after all, that there wasn’t a corporation born that isn’t trying to make as much profit as it can. The easiest way to do that is on the backs of its workers, as Marx would say.
So please, government, if you’re certain you need to interfere in this quarrel, try to remember some of people you’re supposed to be representing are union members, too. Show some respect: we are technically your bosses, you know. It’s just too bad we have to wait almost five years to shut you out.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Tennis is awesome, and for so many reasons.
I find it utterly riveting while watching it, yet in no way distracting if I should turn away to conduct other business. The movement of the little ball as it flies back and forth is hypnotic and yet soothing. It is always amazing to see the speed, power, and tactics used by pros. They are able to manipulate, direct, and control the movement of tennis balls with an almost magical power, just by smashing the hell out of it with a racquet.
Then we come to the fans. The stands are filled with avid observers who do nothing more than watch in appreciation. Applause, when it comes, is polite and of limited duration. You won’t see anyone performing the “Wave.” You won’t hear any of those damnable vuvuzelas (those stupid horns ruined the World Cup last year, utterly ruined it). No hooting. No hollering. No cussing. No one is wearing a giant foam finger as far as the eye can see. There are no riots, win or lose. No fist-fights, rushing the players, or trash-talk. In short, everyone behaves in a civil manner, and if they don’t, they get kicked out, and fast. Sweet, glorious peace, and all while watching a sporting event. Compare that to hockey, football, soccer, or just about any other event you might care to sit through.
Some tennis players have become famous over the years for their bad behaviour. But even so, you do not see a tennis match interrupted eight times so the players can pound each other’s faces with their fists. Compared to almost any other professional sport, tennis players are peaceful and focused. They are there to play the game, not pander to the lowest common denominator with excessive displays more at home among birds preening for potential mates than professional athletes.
If all sports were played with such grace and dignity, I could see myself becoming a sports nut. As it is, though, it’s pretty easy to stay away from the violence, swearing and pointless fury. They say competition brings out the best in people, and maybe that’s true for the athletes. It sure doesn’t apply to their fans.
Except for tennis. Tennis rocks.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Cujo goes to school

It’s time again to rag on pets; dogs this time.
Actually, it isn’t the dogs themselves. Pets of all stripes can be great. I have known many pets over the years that I adored. My first pet gerbils, Jeb and Gerb (unoriginal names, to be certain), were awesome. Their tiny bodies, buried almost two feet deep with loving care, are probably still somewhere under the lawn of my childhood home. We had a whole procession of gloriously friendly farm dogs. The felines were neat, too, toting their kittens around from one place to another, stalking birds or mice, or just spending way too long licking themselves with no thought to how stupid they looked with one leg jutting straight up.
Nope, it isn’t the pets. It’s the pet owners. Obviously not everyone who owns a pet is an inconsiderate jerk. In fact, many of them are great people. They just tend to have a blind spot when it comes to their beloved animals. Some parents (the dumb ones) are like that about their children. “Oh, my little darling could never lie. If he says he didn’t break your window, then he didn’t. And no, I don’t know where he got those cuts from.” Come on. Wake up. Kids lie. Not all of them all the time, but all of them at least once. That’s what makes it challengingly: you don’t know when they’re going to drop a fib on you.
In the same vein, dogs bite. Not all of them all the time, true, but anyone who claims “Not my dog. My dog would never bite” is deluded. The best you can say is “My dog has never yet bitten.” I’ve been given similar blithe guarantees many times. “Oh, not this breed. It’s not a biting breed.” Give me a break. Name the breed, and unless it lacks a mouth, you’ll be able to find an example of it biting somebody, somewhere. Even the beautifully trained guide dogs are capable of biting (Google it; you’ll see). So if an animal taught from a pup to be docile, obedient and helpful can bite, please don’t fool yourself into thinking your canine is perfect.
I’m ranting about this because our local school division has a policy about dogs staying off school property. It makes sense to me. Kids are excitable and chaotic, while dogs are animals, and therefore prone to getting riled up if around a lot of activity. Unfortunately, as is the way with us humans, all too many of us are ignorant of the rules (or choose to ignore them), and I am constantly seeing mutts around the schoolyard. Last week was the worst infringement.
A lady brought her dog, leashed at least, with her when she came to drop her child off. She also had a stroller and baby, so she could hardly be said to have full control over the dog. For a few minutes it sat quietly beside her. Then for no reason readily apparent, it rushed at a kid, barking madly. The tail was not wagging. There was no sign the dog didn’t mean business. The poor kid (who had done nothing to aggravate the dog, unless he had telepathically assaulted it) nearly wet himself. After all, his head was only about ten centimeters higher than the dog’s. It would have been pretty scary to see a red maw come rushing right at your face.
No one was hurt. The owner got the dog under control in time. It immediately tried for another lunge, though (apparently that kid was wearing bacon underwear or something). The whole time the dog is yapping furiously and trying to eat a small human, its owner was smiling and shaking her head, as though the crazed dog was just a child throwing a tantrum over a dropped ice cream cone. Eventually she left with the dog, but she never apologized or even seemed to realize that her pet had come within a foot of mauling someone else’s child. It was all in good fun, judging by her expression.
There’s a chance she was secretly mortified and just trying to put on a brave face to cover it up. More likely she walked away convinced that someone had done something to provoke her cherished animal. As I said, I don’t blame the dog. For all that I’m sure it is well-loved, it’s still just an animal. It has no moral center, no conscience, no concept of right and wrong. Whatever its thought processes, they clearly don’t dwell on how its behaviour might harm or impact others.
Maybe I can’t really blame the lady, then, for the same reason.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Nerd Test, Question 2

You experience an unexpected day of sunshine in a month of near-constant rain. Before the clouds roll in you:
     a) crack a beer and bask on the deck,
     b) break out the sticks and head for the links,
     c) wistfully wish there was a beach closer to where you live, or
     d) shut the curtains in annoyance and huddle happily in the gloom.

If you answered D, you could be a nerd. Further testing... yadda, yadda, yadda. As you can see, my nerd and homemaker sides are at war over this issue. (In case you care, the homemaker won.)

Homemaker Test, Question 2

You experience an unexpected day of sunshine in a month of near-constant rain. Before the clouds roll in you:
     a) crack a beer and bask on the deck,
     b) break out the sticks and head for the links,
     c) wistfully wish there was a beach closer to where you live, or
     d) cut the grass back down to a manageable height.

If you answered D, you could be a homemaker. Further testing may be required to confirm this diagnosis.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Homemaker Test, Question 1

You do not have a croissant for a snack this afternoon because:
     a) they are fattening,
     b) they are older than your TV and should be thrown out, only not too hard or they could kill
     c) you have lost your mind and refuse to eat carbs, or
     d) you just vacuumed the entire house and you're afraid to drop crumbs on the floor.

If you answered D, you could be a homemaker. Further testing may be required to confirm this diagnosis.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Placebo Effect

A psychiatrist from McGill wants to make placebos part of the regular regiment of medical treatments. He claims that placebos are powerful things. At times they can even be more effective than the costly medications that we produce. Study after study exists out there to back him up. The placebo effect is an established and real thing. He may very well have a point. If you could give a placebo instead of, let’s say, an antibacterial, we might have been able to avoid having antibiotic-resistant super-germs floating around hospitals. Placebos would also save the ill millions of dollars, as it is a lot cheaper to produce Tic-Tacs than Lipitor. The guy makes sense.
Where I got confused was when I thought about the big picture. Aren’t placebos only effective because we believe in them? If you give a patient an M&M, inform that patient of the “medication’s” true nature, and say “But don’t worry, it’ll cure cancer,” the thing won’t work. Of course it won’t work: it’s an M&M. So to incorporate placebos into our medical bag of tricks, you also have to incorporate deceit and lies. Your doctor has to lie to you in order to make sure the pills he’s giving you will work. Not only that, but you have to believe the lies.
Aren’t those lies only believable because we, as patients, know that there is a whole plethora of dope and pills out there that can cure what ails us? In order for a placebo to operate, it needs a camouflage of billions of dollars of real drugs. And should doctors begin regularly prescribing placebos, how long until that becomes public knowledge? We live in a global village with whistle-blowers and the Internet: I think the news that doctors are engaged in a conspiracy would take about six minutes to break.
So now we have created a situation where patients doubt every pill they’re given. Is it a Smartie? Or is it Amoxicilin? So many people already distrust actual doctors that homeopaths (professional purveyors of placebos) have a thriving business. Is it really a good idea to add to that distrust by actually being untrustworthy?
It also occurs to me that there may well be an anti-placebo effect as well. If the power of the human mind and belief is so strong that it can cure diseases based on the strength of a symbolic, ingested Mike&Ike, doesn’t it also stand to reason that the body can resist the legitimate effects of a real drug if you think it’s bogus?
Ultimately, I’d rather take my chances with science. Reese’s Pieces belong in movie night, not the medicine cabinet.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New Neighbours

When we moved into our new place last year, we were thrilled to discover that our neighbours kicked ass. The only way they could be more perfect is if they paid our mortgage. They greeted us when we were moving, then left us alone to keep working. Over the next few days I had friendly chats with the people all across the block. They respected our privacy and need to get settled while at the same time made sure we were aware that our presence wasn’t looked on as an intrusion into their perfect sanctum. Sure, they’re all older than I am, but I see that as a bonus: I’ve often felt like an old man trapped in a young man’s body. My parents used to call me “Grandpa” back when I was only eleven (this had less to do with me being crotchety and more to do with my preference for sitting in a lawn chair with a blanket over my legs reading while the rest of the family cavorted on the beach).
Compare this to our last house. On moving day, the vagrant to our north leaned his sweating bulk on the (too low) fence between our properties, cigarette hanging from his lips, and made “helpful” comments the whole time, such as “wow, that looks heavy,” and “you sure have a lot of stuff there.” I didn’t want him to offer to help, but I sure wanted him to bugger off. The cherry on top of his pudgy sunday? He wore nothing more than a bathrobe the whole time, and wasn’t as concerned about keeping it cinched tight as I thought he should have been. They also had a cat that they allowed to freely roam the block to crap on lawns and eat flowers. It had been my dream to deliver its corpse back to them with a shrug and an insincere apology, but the thing was wily and my cold-blooded self was never put to the test.
Then to the south we had a gentleman we nicknamed “ADHD” because of his ridiculous amount of energy and willingness to use that energy at annoying times of the day or night. For instance, he would pound in fence posts at 10:45 at night. Or take his remote control car roaring along the street at 6:00 am. (Before you think “Oh, that can’t be so loud,” let me assure you it wasn’t the kind of RC car a nine year old might get for Christmas. This thing was super-charged. I’m sure it had its own eight-cylinder internal combustion engine.) He was friendly enough, but often forgot the bounds of societal convention. We built a fence around us for a reason, but he didn’t get it: instead he would just grab a stepladder and leap up to have a chin-wag with us over the boards.
All those old torments were gone now, though. No longer did we have to worry that exiting our door would result in a half hour conversation with Naked Smoker or ADHD. Now it was all good. The old proverb says that “good fences make good neighbours,” and I agree with that wholeheartedly. With our new batch, though, we don’t feel the pleading, “please-god-how-soon-can-we-get-this-thing-up” sort of feeling about our fence. So you can imagine it was  with sinking hearts that we saw the house to our south had a “For Sale” sign on it.
The gentleman and his wife aren’t young and were having health issues serious enough that they couldn’t maintain a home anymore. Sad, and not just for obvious reasons. Now they’re in a retirement home, and we have to face the dangerous uncertainty of a New Neighbour. The house has changed hands. Anyone at all could be there. I’ve glimpsed many people moving in and out, but none of them have lingered long enough for me to engage them. Frankly, I’m desperate for the chance to have a not-so-casual chat to see what sort of people they are. Truthfully, so many bodies have come and gone I’m not even sure which of them actually live there. Vehicles seem to change daily. At least two different dogs have been seen on the premises. Curtains remain drawn. The lawn is mowed by a lawn service, denying me yet another opportunity to have a suburban “lean on your mower and rest” chat. The uncertainty of it is killing me. After all, I might be sharing a property line with these people for decades (a longer time than many marriages, for instance). It is vexing. My desire to respect their privacy is warring with my need to know.
If we were Oprah-rich, I know we would have bought the house the instant it went for sale just to enjoy a buffer between us and the world. Of course, with Oprah’s money, we could buy the whole town, move everyone out, and hire actors to play the roles of perfect and helpful townspeople. They would signal before turning, only run their power tools between the hours of 10 and 10, and never let their pets pee on my snowbanks. Ah, to live the dream.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Grave Witching

I just read an article about a “grave witcher.” He uses welding rods to divine the locations of unmarked graves. The process is similar to water dowsing. When our boy walks over a grave, the rods suddenly spin in his hands. They go clockwise, he says, if the body is male, counter-clockwise for females. He can further hone the reading (somehow, no details on what precisely happens, visually) to determine whether the deceased is a child, an adolescent, or an adult. This grave witcher has worked extensively with genealogists to locate graveyards previously hidden. The Manitoba Genealogical Society says that his work is “invaluable.” Without his efforts, graveyards might remain forever lost. Quite the hero, this grave witcher.
Here’s the thing, though. Out of all the graves he’s located, out of the hundreds (if not thousands) of bodies and eternal resting places he’s sniffed out, not one has ever been dug up. Let me repeat that. NOT ONE. No real effort has ever been made to confirm there's any corpse present at all. So how do we know he’s doing anything at all?
We don’t. There’s no evidence whatsoever that anything more profound than pivoting welding rods has ever been discovered as a result of this “grave witching.” All of the graves he’d found are unmarked. Theoretically there’s a corpse two meters down, but we don’t know.
I’m not saying “dug ‘em all up.” But people are gathering what they believe to be real genealogical evidence based on the witcher’s premonitions. Families have “found” the burial places of long lost relatives because of magical welding rods. Granted, this date - false or not - isn’t anything that will change the course of the world. Dead people stay dead, no matter who claims to be their descendant, and it doesn’t matter one bit if you think your grandpa is buried over there when he’s actually buried somewhere else.
It is a sad statement about the gullibility of humans, though. Maybe this witching works (but probably not). Before we conclude it does, though, shouldn’t we apply a little basic scientific methodology? Don’t we need to use some critical thinking? If the entire population operated on this kind of logic, we’d still think rat bites give you the Black Death. We’d still believe the Earth was the center of the universe. We’d still embrace the idea that women are always at fault when they don’t produce a “man-child.”
Believing something harmless when it’s unproven or even false shouldn’t really matter. It’s only one thing, right, and who’s it going to hurt? The problem is that this failure becomes a habit and eventually an entire way of life for some people. Blindness like that scares me.
(As a corollary to this whole thing, it does cast additional doubt on the veracity of all those “Genealogy Websites” that have sprung up in the past years. How much of the “factual information” they offer you about your descendants is based on such time-tested research techniques as grave witching?)