Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's what month?

Here on the eve of yet another New Year (they do seem to be coming fast and furious these days) I made the mistake of looking forward to what was coming our way in January. It is going to be a busy month indeed once tomorrow’s hang-over has gone and the realisation sinks in that one more year has passed and we’re not healthier, wealthier, or even necessarily any wiser.

Did you know that January was Clean Up Your Computer Month? I certainly didn’t. Whoever set January aside for that task clearly did so in 1972. Today, with multi-terabit disk drives and Microsoft applications, a month is not nearly enough time - Clean Up Your Computer Quarter would be more appropriate. Or in my case, since I’ve been trying to get this done since about 1972, I think I’ll simply designate 2009 as Clean Up Your Computer Year and resolve not to simply solve the problem as I have in the past, by buying a faster computer with more and bigger hard drives.

Still with the clean-up theme, January is also Get Organized Month. Ah, yes. Start the New Year off with a clean slate. Resolve to be better organized and not miss as many dentist appointments. Have more free time to partake in Family Fit Lifestyle Month, and be sure to keep January 14 open as National Clean-Off-Your-Desk Day as well as Organize Your Home Day. (See comments regarding Clean Up Your Computer Month above.)

Lest you think the entire month will be spent in a real-life version of some bad TV reality show, January is also designated as California’s Dried Plum Digestive Health Month, Oatmeal Month, and Resolve to Eat Breakfast Month. Starting the day with all those prunes and that fibre in your diet means even if you don’t get your computer, desk and house all cleaned up in a month, your innards certainly will be, and I’m sure you’ll feel better for it.

I’m also hoping that the global economy pays attention as January is Financial Wellness Month. After 2008, my financial wellness is on life support, so I’m looking forward to an uptick in January and being able to at least crawl, if not leap, out of bed fiscally speaking before February (Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month) rolls around.

For business folks, January 7-11 is National Thank Your Customers Week, followed ten days later on January 17 by Get To Know Your Customers Day. Perhaps part of the problem businesses claim to be trying to solve could be addressed by simply reversing these two events. Then at least they’d know who they were thanking. But then again, I’m not a marketing whiz, so what do I know.

And you have to wonder who picked the coldest month of the year for National Cut Your Energy Costs Day (January 10). Let’s see, it’s 20-below and the wind is howling but I’m still going to turn off my furnace because it’s Cut Your Energy Costs Day? I don’t think so. At least if it was July you could set the air conditioner a couple of degrees higher and still feel good about saving energy without the risk of freezing to death.

Yep, lots to look forward to in January, so best to get the celebrations out of the way tonight so you can get to work changing your life tomorrow.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

The storm

Well it’s not always peaceful and quiet out here in the sticks.

Yesterday morning we lost power almost as soon as the storm hit. With wind speeds in excess of 100 kilometres per hour (10-11 on the Beaufort Scale), it wasn’t surprising that a tree (or several) took down power lines somewhere on the grid. My immediate worry was whether it was a Hydro-owned line or the secondary feeder line on our property which would be our responsibility to fix. A quick trip down the road and I was relieved to confirm that it wasn’t my problem, but with the flying debris, the roar of the wind, and the sound of trees cracking and falling all around, I decided that outside was not the place to be. In fact I would sooner be standing in the middle of a golf course holding a 1-iron overhead in an electrical storm (they say not even God can hit a 1-iron) than be outside yesterday.

So the afternoon and evening were spent indoors, listening to flying tree branches banging off the walls and the roof, worrying that one of those branches would come through the front window or one of several 100-foot pines would come down on the house.

Late in the evening the wind finally died down and relative silence returned with, fortunately, no catastrophe having occurred.

Still no power this morning, so the generator got cranked up for coffee and the damage assessment began. While there was no damage to the house or the vehicles this time, we did lose about a dozen trees around the house including a couple of large spruce, a big cedar and some smaller balsam fir. Most snapped like matchsticks a few feet off the ground, but a couple were torn out right at the roots.

The sound of chainsaws near and far signalled the start of the cleanup which will likely continue for two or three days. A lot of work, but at least we have our power back!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The sacred white blanket

There’s a North American Indian legend that in winter the Great Spirit spreads a sacred white blanket on Mother Earth, allowing her to rest and prepare for the new life to come in the spring.

When all is quiet and peaceful and a white mantle covers the land, it’s easy to believe.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas trees past

Today we brought our Christmas tree indoors and the house was immediately flooded with that once-a-year scent of fresh fir.

There is no doubt that certain odors can trigger memories long forgotten – or at least not recently recalled. And so, as it does every year, the smell of that freshly-cut tree took me right back to a long-ago childhood when our Christmas tree was the one we found, cut, and brought home ourselves.

Getting the tree was the signal that Christmas was close. And so it was always a big event when, on a Sunday just before Christmas, Dad, all decked out in his galoshes and fedora, and Mom in her Hudson’s Bay coat would drag us all on toboggans, down the road to find the perfect tree.

And we were never disappointed.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Well it’s finally here. After days of advanced warnings, a Toronto preview, and the Weather Channel’s red-screened alerts, snowmageddon has arrived.

It remains to be seen how much snow we get and whether the storm lives up to all the hype, but it’s starting off well. A blustery snow-swirly day – terrible for those on the roads or trying to fly anywhere, but perfect for snowshoeing in the woods followed by a hot drink and a good book in front of the fire.

And since I have nowhere to go for the next 48 hours, let it snow!

hours later, the storm is past and the sun is shining in a clear, blue sky. There's a lousy 10 centimetres of snow on the ground. We've been cheated!

Abominations and thoughts thereon

A couple of weeks ago I had a rare occasion to be in a church, attending a Christmas concert in which my wife was singing in the choir. The music was delightful, the church was beautifully decorated, and best of all, the pews were padded. Someone said it was because for this particular faith the services frequently ran to two hours and if the pews weren’t padded everyone would leave half way through. I didn’t really care why, my bum was comfy and that’s all that mattered to me.

At the mid-point of the concert there was a 20-minute musical interlude by a solo harpist of, apparently, some renown. This immediately put the bulk of the audience, the average age of which seemed to be about 65, to sleep.

To keep myself from nodding off along with the rest (it was, after all, my normal nap time) I started perusing the Bible conveniently placed in the rack in front of me, in full knowledge that by my so doing the devil might actually be lacing up his ice skates. And so while the harpist who, if truth be known, would much rather be up there wearing a Stetson, strumming a guitar and singing sad country songs about lost loves and trucks, played on to the sonorous accompaniment of 100 nap-deprived seniors, I was reading Leviticus and trying to sort out all the various abominations contained therein.

Abomination. It’s one of those words that really doesn’t need a definition. You only have to hear it spittle-sprayed from the mouth of a raging fundamentalist once to immediately grasp its meaning. It’s a mean, nasty word, too often used by mean, nasty people with mean, nasty intent, but it immediately reminded me of this – one of the many great scenes from The West Wing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Perhaps they could be used to wax eloquent.

Christmas is a festival of light and candles have traditionally played a key part in decorating for, and celebrating the season. But in recent years Christmas candles have become problematic: there are just too many of them and you can’t get rid of the damned things.

Every year we buy new candles because last year’s are too dusty, melted from the summer attic heat, or just aren’t quite right for this year’s decorating theme. And then friends and relatives add to the inventory because candles are the ultimate gift – safe and suitable for all ages and sexes and relationships, and inexpensive enough that the recipient doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to reciprocate. Meanwhile, the old ones just get put back into storage, and the candle supply grows, year after year, at a rate we could only dream would be matched by our stock market investments – an indestructible bubble that will never burst.

Now if we actually burned our Christmas candles this wouldn’t be a problem, but Christmas candles never, ever get burned.

Her: “Don’t light that candle!”
Him: “Why not? They’re candles. They’re supposed to be burned.”
Her: “But then they won’t look nice.”
Him: (rolls eyes) “Okay. “ (turns on the lights)
So by the time Christmas actually rolls around every flat surface in the house is festooned with these virginal wax creations. To eat dinner at the table, you first have to remove the candle centre-piece. If you want to open the window, you have to move the candles off the sill. Bed-side tables, bathroom counters, coffee tables – even the fireplace mantle gets the treatment.

(Let me interject a word of caution here for the novice candle decorator. Rising heat from a fireplace will soften the candles leaving them looking like the ‘before’ image in a Viagra ad. If you don’t want Aunt Mable blushing and tittering into the back of her daintily-gloved hand, you’d better have a fresh, stiff set of replacements handy before the family arrives for Christmas dinner.)

By New Year’s Eve we have enough wax of various colours and shapes lying around to open a local Madame Tussaud’s. However since that’s not going to happen, I need a way to get rid of our dusty, our melted, our old, and our droopy so I don’t have to pack them all up again for next year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Of the night

This morning we awoke to 10 cm of fresh snow. In addition to re-decorating the trees after Monday’s thaw, the snow provided pure white witness to a hidden, night-time world.

Our resident red fox had come out of the woods, looped around the house and then headed down to the lake, hunting. His track in the snow shows that, at least in the immediate area, he was unsuccessful in his search for an early breakfast.

Not so for the owl. Out in the open, a large splash of wing marks abruptly terminates the tiny footprints of a small rodent, caught exposed in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sometime after the snow stopped a flock of wild turkeys passed through, leaving their tracks on the road rather than venturing into the deeper snow in the forest.

And the deer – depending on your point of view either beautiful creatures of the forest, loathsome pests, or dinner – spent the dawn hours foraging among the remnants of last summer’s gardens looking for any previously missed morsel of greenery.

Over the day human activity, wind, and more snow obliterated the nocturnal record, but until then we had a tantalizing glimpse of life, and death, in the natural world that we would not get at any other time of the year. Just one more reason why winter is the most magical of seasons.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dashing through the ... slush?

As the Prairies freeze in unseasonably cold temperatures, back here in eastern Ontario we’re in the midst of the first of this winter’s warm spells. Today it was 8°C and pouring rain. The 1½ feet of snow we had on the ground has all but disappeared, and our snow-packed lane is now nothing but a few inches of heavy, wet slush.

And the worst part is yet to come as the winds pick up speed and swing around to the north, the temperatures plummet turning all that water on the roads to sheets of ice, and our lane freezes into a rutted obstacle course, nearly impassable to anything but a full-on four-wheel-drive vehicle.

In short, it’s a mess. And although it’s a mess we deal with two or three times every winter, it never gets easier to take because there really is nothing to do but curse the weatherman. Irrational I know, but everybody needs somebody to hate. And besides, who else gets to keep their job with accuracy statistics only slightly higher than Bush’s popularity rating. Well, except for pro ball players where a .300 batting average is considered exceptional and worth $50 million a year. But then they don’t have a slush problem in Puerto Rico.

But back at the lake, if today’s sunset is anything to go by, tomorrow will be a nice, cold, clear day and life will be back to normal – assuming the winds don’t drop a tree on a power line, or the house, or the truck, or....

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The road

The road runs through the open spaces of farmer’s fields for a few kilometres before it connects to the highway and its snarl of transport trucks and daily commuters. Once a concession road that served as access for the few farms along its length, the road is now used as a bypass to avoid the village with its 50 kilometre-per-hour speed limit and single stop sign because those just “slow you down too much”.

But except for a few minutes in the morning and afternoon when the countrified urbanites who have moved out here rush to and from their jobs in the city, the road is pretty quiet, with the silence broken only by the infrequent rumble of a tractor being shifted from one field to another, or the sound of the train whistle as the twice-daily freight thunders past on the nearby level crossing.

Beside the road, under a solitary maple tree hundreds of metres from the nearest house, someone placed these two chairs. In the winter the prevailing winds blow around them, creating intricate patterns in the drifts of snow. And in the summer, someone carefully tends the grass, plants a few flowers, and keeps the corn rows from encroaching. But no one is ever seen sitting in them.

So year round they stand there, begging those travelers of the road who are in no rush to be someplace else to stop and sit a while.

Perhaps I’ll do that one day.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I don’t need 100 words for snow...

Popular legend says there are hundreds of Inuit words for snow, although linguistics scholars peg the number at probably closer to a dozen. In the English language we tend to be a bit less descriptive and have only a few terms for the white stuff, relying instead on a wide range of adjectives to provide a precise narrative - squeeky snow, fluffy snow, fresh snow, and so on.

And when our feelings towards snow are not that positive we can simply combine one of those few English words ('snow' works well) with any of the dozen or so pejorative adjectives commonly applied to it (‘damned’ being one of the least objectionable) singly or in combination to get approximately 874,216 negative snow-related expressions.

I used most of them this morning.

Lesson of the day: do not stand under a 100-foot snow-laden pine tree when the wind blows.

I had snow so far down my back I had to shake my shorts out and my socks got wet.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

My angel drives a tractor

We’re just two weeks from Christmas, or as the retailers would like us to think, only 13 more shopping days! The house is decorated inside and out and the baking is mostly done (although around here Christmas cookies have a half-life of about 2 days). And as always happens this time of year, the angels are out and about with gay abandon.

Christmas music now being broadcast on the airwaves includes the ever-popular traditional classics like Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Angels We Have Heard on High. Every country music star and wannabe has released a new angels-heavy Christmas album. And acting careers are being launched by the thousands as 5-year-old girls and boys make their stage debut wearing a cut-down sheet and a pair of tinfoil wings in the Christmas concert.

Yup, angels figured heavily in Christmas celebrations from the very beginning when they supposedly told Mary who the father was and then told Joseph that it wasn’t him (not an enviable job). Then they got to fly around and spread the news about the Christ child to all mankind. And speaking of spreads, more recently they are best known for those Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercials.

I have to admit it all seemed a bit of a stretch to me until this morning.

That’s when my angel arrived with her 4-wheel-drive tractor complete with a honkin’ huge snow blower to clear the foot of snow (okay, 30 centimetres for the metric purists) that Mother Nature dumped on us – more specifically, our ½ mile driveway – last night. Ten minutes later she was done and we were once again connected with the big, wide world out there.

Now that’s something I can really believe in!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The blizzard

Mother Nature is on a tear – from 20 below yesterday to blizzard conditions today.

Normally when these storms blow in from the East we just batten down the hatches, throw another log on the fire, and wait them out. But this time I had to go into town - to get snow tires installed!

Fortunately there was very little traffic on the road and I was able to keep up a pretty good pace. And by straddling the centre line I had lots of sliding room when I needed it, which I did once or twice.

No traffic meant I could also enjoy the somewhat surreal experience of driving in blizzard conditions. The horizon is lost as the grey sky, falling snow, and snow-covered fields merge in the distance. With no reference points, depth perception fails. Periodically a house or barn will appear, seemingly afloat in a sea of whiteness, or an oncoming vehicle will suddenly appear only to disappear again in the rear view mirror. It’s like driving into a blank canvas upon which some unseen hand is quickly sketching a montage of black and white images which just as quickly fade back into the white.

A couple of hours later I was back. The car was in the driveway, suitably shod with the latest in snow and ice conquering technology, and I was in the kitchen inhaling the smells of freshly baked carrot cake and licking the icing spoon. Let it snow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Prorogue, Coalition, Harper, Dion, Leadership, Iggy, Duffy, G-G, Baird - I can't take it any more!

Every six months or thereabouts I get so entirely fed up with politics (a sham), politicians (liars), political pundits (the blind leading the deaf), and rabid partisans (rabid partisans) that I say a pox on all their houses and take a time out. I prorogue myself, you might say.

Well I've reached that point again where I’m just so sick of the madness that I’ve decided to ignore (at least as best I can) politics for a while. It might be for a week or it might be for a month, but one thing is for certain - when I start paying attention again the Conservatives will still be lying swindlers, the MSM will still be biased and only marginally competent, the Liberals will still be trying to figure out what the hell happened, and the rabid partisans will still be abusing each other with cheap shots and ad hominem personal attacks.

Actually, in a way it's kind of comforting because, just like missing an episode or two of Desperate Housewives, it really doesn’t matter. Within a couple of minutes you’re all caught up and know exactly what’s going on because it’s just more of the same outrageous behaviour by a dysfunctional group of self-absorbed idiots trying their damnedest to self destruct in prime time.

Now I just need something else to write about....

Jack Frost nipping....

Boots crunching on the snow... Trees cracking in protest... The far-off whine of a snowmobile crossing the lake... The mid-morning sun hanging low in the southern sky...Breath freezing on my beard... Squinting eyes blinded by the brightness of the fresh white snow... Fingertips numbing in winter gloves... The smell of wood smoke from the chimney... Chickadees calling in the silence... Frigid eyeglasses fogging up indoors.

Winter has now got us firmly in her grasp. This morning I awoke to a bright, crisp sunny day with the temperature hovering around -20°C. The high winds of yesterday had dissipated and the air was absolutely calm.

I took a shortcut to go and get the morning paper (yes, there’s a trail through there) and was reminded again just how spectacular a winter day in the country can be. A true feast for the senses and the kind of day that lifts the soul.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Procrastination is something best left until tomorrow

But eventually, in spite of my best efforts to delay, Christmas cards have to be sent.

And so with suitable prodding by the spousal unit (“Here are the cards and a pen; what are you waiting for?”), and the accompaniment of a very large tumbler of scotch, the process begins.

First you have to write the dreaded Christmas letter. That’s the letter in which you summarize a year’s worth of family news of absolutely no interest to anyone but yourself, and perhaps your mother, onto one double-sided page to be foisted off on the unsuspecting Christmas card recipient. The Christmas letter used to be the exclusive domain of immediate family back in the days when a stamp was cheaper than long-distance and Christmas was the only time folks found out what their grandkids had been up to for the past 12 months. But times change and the replacement of the trusty Underwood by word processing software means that it is now but an extra click or two to print 100 copies to send to EVERYONE. It also means the font can be reduced as necessary to ensure that the entire message still fits on the single page which will keep the envelope within size and weight limits for first-class postage. Just be aware that a 4-point font is totally illegible to anyone whose eyes have been on this earth for more than 4 decades.

Once your letter of exciting news, brilliant witticisms, and the requisite out-of-focus family snapshot taken during the summer vacation at the lake is ready to go you have to select the correct card to stick it in. As when crossing a minefield, one must tread very carefully in this regard. There are 3 distinct types of Christmas card out there – religious, secular and humorous, to be sent to religious, secular and odd friends. And you should never – NEVER – mix them up. A Christmas card with Vixen in a thong doing a pole dance while being cheered on by Rudolph and a bunch of drunken elves should never be sent to the Pastor, for example. It’s not that your Pastor is this dour person with no sense of humour; it’s just that humorous religious cards are simply not to be had. Which is a bit odd, really, as one would think 3 dudes showing up on camels, carrying something called Myrrh and calling themselves Maggie would have all sorts of comedic possibilities. But alas religion and humour remain mutually exclusive, so it’s angels and ginormous stars and baby Jesuses in mangers with biblical quotes for the religious sect. Everyone else gets a laugh, a cartoon of Santa in a compromising position, and a Happy Holidays greeting.

So you’re done, right? Just throw them in the mail and you can go back to watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas or Vixen doing her pole dance ... wow it's amazing what you can find on cable these days ... er, sorry, lost focus there for a moment. Yeah. Mail. Well not quite, because now the game of Christmas chicken begins. Everyone has people on their Christmas card list who they don’t really want to send a card to, and who they suspect feel the same way towards them. But you don’t want to be the first to break with tradition so you delay sending them a card until (if) one from them arrives in your mailbox. When it does, you quickly toss a reply card in the outgoing mail as if you intended to all along. And because Canada Post can take anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks to deliver, they will never know with certainty that the cards didn’t simply cross in the mail, thus extending for at least one more year the period during which folks you don’t really care about that much still feel an obligation to send you a Christmas card or else suffer the humiliation of being first to break the chain.

By the way, this is similar to the technique to be used when a card arrives from your Aunt Mabel who you hadn’t heard from for 12 years and assumed was dead but was really just chillin’ with some trucker in a trailer park in Tennessee and has now decided it’s time to renew family acquaintances in the hope that someone has a spare room. On second thought, in that case it’s probably best to let Aunt Mabel think you’re the dead one. But you get the point, which is always keep a few extra cards around for the last minute panic mailing that’s sure to occur right up to the big day itself. Besides they'll still be good next year.

Yup, sending out the Christmas cards is one of those traditions that help us celebrate this most joyous occasion. I wouldn’t miss it for anything, but why can’t it wait until tomorrow?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

If my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a tractor

No I have no idea what it means either, but that’s what Gilles Duceppe just said when asked about supporting a Conservative budget in January.

The coalition is dead. It was a good try, but it failed. It hurts to be beaten by a bully and a coward, but now it’s time to move on. After the G-G’s decision today, there’s no way the coalition will be asked to form a government if Harper & Co. get turfed on a confidence vote on the budget. Parliament will be disbanded and it will be every party for itself in a new election campaign.

So the progressive parties on the left better start dealing with that reality right now because they only have about 8 weeks to come up with an electable alternative to present to the Canadian people – or they roll over on the budget. And the longer the Liberals, NDP and Bloc persist with their coalition fantasy, the less time they will have to mount an aggressive, winning campaign and counter the flood of lies and propaganda about to be unleashed on the Canadian public by the Cons.

Monday, December 1, 2008

“I refuse to tip-toe through life only to arrive safely at death”

That anonymous quote got me thinking again about the latest Ontario government initiatives to coddle its citizenry, protecting us from ourselves, and furthermore protecting us from ever having to take any real responsibility for our actions. (Previously blogged on here, here, and here.)

Nanny-state legislation, most often initiated as a political knee-jerk reaction to an unfortunate death or injury, seems particularly problematic in Ontario. And without a major backlash, its relentless progression will eventually turn us all into a society of zombies. As we move from one protective bubble to the next, we will live our lives totally unexposed and to some extent oblivious to the real world around us with all its excitement, beauty, and, it must be said, dangers. Unable to conceive of taking any personal risk, we will become solely focused on immunizing ourselves from life so we can survive forever, without fear and without pain. Ironically, in order to live longer we become the walking dead ourselves.

I’m certainly no Edmund Hillary when it comes to living on the edge, but I’ve had my moments (many of which I'm proud to say would now be against one or more laws) and I simply can’t imagine being 100 years old and only having a white bread life to look back on. As the old joke goes, the doctor says if you give up drinking, smoking and wild women you’ll live to be 100. To which the patient replied, why would I want to? Exactly!

Any life worth living is inherently risky. Sure, some of us pushed it too far and, paraphrasing James Dean, lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse. Other friends, colleagues and family members didn’t make it this far due to countless other factors beyond their or anyone else’s control. But most of us make it through just fine, in spite of it all. And facing those risks, feeling that excitement, winning... and losing, even those near-death experiences define who we are. They are the underpinnings of our character, the same human character that brought innovation and progress to the western world at an unprecedented rate over the past few generations. It’s the same human character that gives us our heroes, in war and in peacetime; the same human character that lets us dig deep to find that irresistible force needed when faced with one of life’s immovable objects; and the same human character that every society needs in order to survive and that we, as humans, need to truly live.

Losing a loved one before their time hurts, and it’s understandable that those suffering such a loss will cry out for more rules, more limits, more controls so that no one else will ever have to feel their pain. But personal pain is not a good forge for public policy, and we should expect our politicians to be wise enough to realise that.