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Archive for June, 2007

The unexplained

On Monday evening, we were over at a neighbour’s house having a drink on the patio. As the light faded and we lit the citronella candles, we got talking about supernatural events in our lives.

Around the outdoor marble table were a full-time mum, teacher trainer, carpenter, professor, engineering consultant, and public relations expert – you know, a typical suburban collection of societal wackos.

We soon discovered that between us we have witnessed musical ghosts, hand-held poltergeist activity, a sky-spanning UFO, and communication with the dead.

I’m sceptical of all things supernatural. However, the older I get the more I realize that I’m basing my beliefs on gut feelings rather than any form of knowledge or experience.

One look at quantum mechanics tells me that I know next to nothing about how the universe operates.

A second look at quantum mechanics tells me that everybody else knows next to nothing about how the universes operate. It’s just that some people understand that next to nothingness a bit more than others. And we haven’t even started on religion.

In other words, who am I to judge the truth of a reported supernatural occurrence?

My experience of the unexplainable is very limited, but I once had a dream that troubled me.

Here’s the story. Several years ago, I split up with a girlfriend. We’ll call her Emma. Eighteen months later, she committed suicide. I only received a sketchy account of the events – which were totally unconnected with our breaking up. I was shaken by the news.

A few weeks after her death, I saw Emma in a dream. In the fifteen years since her death, this remains the only time she has featured in a dream of mine.

The dream began with a dimly lit scene of cold mist. Apart from the swirling mist, nothing else was discernible. After a while, a figure ice-skated into the middle of the scene, stopped, and looked vacantly towards me. 

I recognized her as Emma, but she was very pale and clearly not living.

“What’s it like?” I asked.

She bowed her head. The whole scene was suffused in sadness: A thorough, unquestioning sadness.

“It’s different,” was all she answered.

The sadness made it clear that there was nothing else to say. There was nothing reassuring about her response. The dream faded and I woke up.

At the time, I didn’t try to interpret the dream very much. The ice bothered me, though. I put the dream down to part of the natural grieving process. I know that often people dream of those who have died a short time before.

A couple of years later, I read a magazine article. There was a section on Dante’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy.

At the beginning of the poem, Dante is seemingly contemplating suicide. The article described how the last of Dante’s nine circles of hell is not a fiery pit, but a lake of ice, reserved for the worst of sinners.

I thought back to the dream. And felt very cold.

I find it difficult to explain why ice featured in the dream. Like most people, I’d heard of Dante’s Inferno, but I am almost certain that I never read any reference to the circle of ice. Also, the dream was in my pre-Canada days, so ice, rinks, and skating were barely on my radar.

I can rationalise the dream by assuming that I must have heard some ice/hell reference at some point, but just consciously forgotten it.

But I’m sceptical about this rationalisation.

Any thoughts welcomed.

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The graduation plague is spreading throughout Canada. It has now reached the kindergartens.

In this Toronto Star article, a principal defends the kindergarten graduation ceremony claiming that, “Everything your children need to know about life and living they learned in kindergarten.”

All the little scholars passed with flying colours and got to wear a mortar board.

So I guess they also learned the lesson that, in life, everyone is successful to the same degree regardless of the amount of effort.

They also learned that some adults will do the happy seal clap at any given opportunity.

They will soon learn that, for them,  graduation ceremonies are fast becoming annual events. On these occasions, everyone gets to celebrate the wonders of an education system where everyone is a success.

At least, until it really matters.

 

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Tonight is graduation night for our oldest son. At fourteen, he is finishing grade eight. Such graduation ceremonies are uncharted waters for me. I am really looking forward to it. In a slightly evil way.

He has been at his current junior high school for two years. There are no end-of-year examinations. Everyone has passed. I am not exactly sure what we are meant to be celebrating.

Recently, our son asked me if he could rent a tuxedo for the evening. He explained that the rental fees were $135. Ten minutes later when my eyes had stopped streaming and I’d sewn my buttocks back on, I remembered that I really shouldn’t mock my children’s sincere requests like that. Good parenting is very hard.

To his credit, he didn’t counter with an “everyone-else-will-be” riposte. Although I suspect that is because he’s heard my speech on “how can you be yourself if you look and sound exactly like all the others?” once too often. I know, I know, peer acceptance and a sense of belonging are important too.

Anyway, in the end, he chose new clothes that he’ll be able to wear again: Beige linen trousers, a white shirt with a faux faded stripe effect, and white running shoes. Taking a daring leap into cultural stereotyping, I suspect he’ll be thrown into sharp relief by the tailored dark suits favoured by his classmates of Korean and Indian extraction. But at least he had the guts to pick from his own sense of style.

Note that I did not pass comment on my son’s taste in clothing in any way. Good parenting is very very hard.

Yesterday was rehearsal day. There were no classes of an educational nature. Two hundred students sat for hours in an auditorium until it was their turn to work on their act. Then, they climbed three steps, shook a hand, mimed the acceptance of a certificate, turned to beam at an imaginary audience and trooped off stage left. 

I would have done the rehearsal in a different way. The school is concerned that students will forget to shake hands or beam appropriately. Sitting around for hours for one measly practice run is methodological suicide.

Why not take the kids outside to the school yard, have a teacher demonstrate the procedure, and get the learners EN MASSE to rehearse the manoeuvres five to ten times?The whole exercise could have been done in fifteen minutes.

For me, my one and only graduation cermony was my first degree at university. Other schools I attended had no formal leaving occasions. At sixteen we left a school that we had attended for five years. People didn’t even say goodbye. They just drifted away – on different days.

Two years later, after studying A-levels at a college in preparation for university, it was a similar story. There was an end-of-year disco, but that was seen more as a place to meet before the serious drinking began in town. The idea of a formal graduation ceremony was entirely absent and would probably not have been welcomed.

But tonight will be different. Scrubbed up parents in all their finery will sit through the lengthy presentation ceremony. Each set will pray that their offspring is not the one to initiate a collapsing domino effect on the rickety stage steps and be the infamous star of a hundred Youtube uploads first thing in the morning.

Next, the dance will begin. This kicks off with a father/daughter and mother/son routine. This nauseating interlude must be the point at which I get to network with the other enforced wallflowers.

Then, the parents are at last banished from the building and the complexities of adolescent pairing-off can finally be set in motion.

In a very oblique moralistic reference, a school newsletter explained that the dance area would be air-conditioned, so students were requested to remain in the building for the duration of the dance. Granted that teenage hormones can get a little overheated, but I think they would survive any expeditions into the night air. Actually, oblique doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Anyway, it’s almost five o’clock. Better decide what I’m going to wear. I don’t think I ever bought a tux, but there might be a suitably staid tie at the back of my raggy T-shirt drawer.

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By the way, France was, of course, just great. But more of that soon.

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Provençal ramble

Received wisdom says blog posts should stick to one topic.

But I’m on vacation. And I get tired of being bombarded with finger-wagging etiquette rules these days. You know the type:

How to write an effective blogpost. How to respond to a blogpost. How to respond to responses to your blog posts. How to use your cellphone on public transport. How to choose a seat on public transport without offending anyone. How to write a blogpost on your cellphone on public transport while giving up your seat to the neediest citizen in your immediate vicinity.

How to carpetbomb western society with sanctimonious social protocol.

But I digress. Deliberately.

On with the rebellious ramble.

Today’s decision could be a bad one. But life is for living. And we’ve weighed up the consequences. Not very scientifically it’s true, but I held fistfuls of the pros and cons and jiggled them up and down a bit.

Upshot: I’m going to France with the rest of the family.

“Why the big deal?” you yawn.

“My best pal, the disc.” I yawn back.

So far, the year has been blighted by sciatica: Two acute attacks and two prolonged recovery periods.  I’m still working on the second.

Sciatica from a herniated disc is tedious stuff. I’ve read all the websites, heard all the advice, and looked into all the possible complications.

Following all this research, my considered opinion is that discs suck.

Or is it blow?

That might be more appropriate.

Medical lesson: Young, healthy discs contain pulpy stuff within a tough fibrous exterior. If the pulpy stuff creates a bulge in the weakened exterior shell, it can hurt.

Also, the outer disc can blow (I was right) a puncture. This can allow the pulpy stuff to leak out and start sticking it to a bunch of wimpy nerves. This can hurt a lot.

You can read a whole load of material about this if you really really want to. But unless your discs are literally getting on your nerves, I highly recommend against it.

Usually it gets better. Without surgery. If you can handle the pain that long. But it can take time.

The pain is often worse with sitting. This puts more pressure on the discs. Squeezes the pulp. Bad thing.

So driving is contraindicated. As is flying. Especially long haul.

Which is why I am a tad concerned about Friday’s flights to France.

Door to door, the journey will take eighteen hours. Medication is useful. As is lying on the floor. Or across two seats – “Go sit on your brother’s lap – again”. Plus, this vacation is supposed to celebrate both our fortieth birthdays from earlier this year. And the kids (claim they) want me to go.

We can justify most things to ourselves. Funny that. How everyone else can seem so inexcusable.

What’s the worst thing that can happen? It can be painful. I might not be able to walk off the first flight in London. Or off the second flight when it lands in Marseille. Or there could be one of those nasty disc complications. Don’t even think about it, my herniated little friend. But we’re going to think much more positively. Whatever happens, it will fix itself eventually.

France is hard to turn down: Especially when I haven’t been for eight years.

That was in 1999. A weekend with my wife sans kids. The year before we came to Canada. The year before Barnsley lost at Wembley and our world turned to the west. Other stories. Other days.

In my late teens and early twenties, I seemed to visit France every few months. I was even lucky enough to live there for a year when I was 21. A year in the Auvergne – again, tales for another day.

At that time, most of my favourite authors were French. I read half of Zola’s novels one year and wrote a long dissertation in French on “The Disintegration of Human Relationships in Zola”.

How’s that for a title from your early twenties!

Then there were Camus, Flaubert, Anouilh, Stendhal, Sartre etc. – all great stuff.

Then I read Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit. Which I thought was the best novel I’d ever read. I liked it so much that I read almost nothing else for a year.

That’s akin to a religious experience.

I must remember to blog a bunch of quotations sometime. Ralph Manheim’s translation is superb.

journey to the end of the night

By the way, I know that Céline’s later anti-semitic rants are far from endearing.

louis ferdinand céline and bébert

But Voyage au bout de la nuit rightly stands as a classic: A rollercoaster trip of scabrous nihilism shot through with enough barbed humour to keep alive your belief in the anti-hero’s and the author’s humanity.

Hang on, I don’t need to write literary guff like that anymore, do I?

But back to the present: This journey is all about Provence, the one corner of France I’ve yet to visit. First stop, Aix-en-Provence: where Zola kicked around as a kid, hanging out with his painter pal Cézanne.

Food, drink, relax, family, friends.

Long lunches in one village perché after another.

 village in provence

Hikes along les calanques.

les calanques 

Cycling on l’île de Porquerolles , canoeing under the Pont du Gard, dozing on the mountain railway from Digne-les-Bains, and gazing down on the Gulf of St. Tropez .

gulf of st tropez

The disc. Repeat the mantra: It’ll be just fine. It’ll be just fine.

So, no posts for at least two weeks. I’m unplugging myself completely.

A la prochaîne.

Travel is useful. It exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.”

Louis Ferdinand Céline.

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The age of labour saving is beginning to leave our house. I don’t think it will be coming back. Small appliances will no longer be replaced unless considered absolutely essential (i.e. my wife says so). Here are five reasons why:

 1. The new toaster packed in this week. This is the third toaster death within the space of a year. It was the usual terminal toaster condition: lack of depression. A permanent state of elation. The mechanism just wouldn’t stay down. At least it died happy.

another happy toaster

2. A toaster is just an eternal source of countertop crumbs. The grill on the stove may seem a little slower. However, you save cleaning time by allowing the crumbs to accumulate in the collecting pan for months on end.

Also, you can cook bacon on the grill and allow some of the residue to build up. So every time you toast something, it will be infused with essence of bacon fat. Just like in the good old days. Healthy too.

3. The new electric kettle no longer switches itself off. Functional lifespan: Less than two months. The role of an electric kettle couldn’t be simpler: Boil water – click off. Too much to ask? Yes, way too demanding. In the eighties, kettles obediently boiled away and snapped off for years and years. They’d be consumed by their own scale before they stopped working perfectly.

a working kettle with scale

4. Electric kettles are eating my kitchen woodwork. Since other family members expect them to click off automatically (poor misguided fools), they are apt to doze off while making a cup of coffee. Half an hour later, they lurch awake to find my wooden cabinets drenched in water droplets –  the antique pine warping in steaming agony.

5. With the demise of the latest appliances, my inner Luddite reared up after a long absence. Think we’ve spent more than enough on imitation crocks of crap that perform their designated duties for less than five minutes, right? From now on, we’re boiling our water in a pan, got it?

So that’s how it’s going to be.

I’m buying no more small kitchen appliances. We hit peak quality a long time ago. Spending more money on a “better class” of appliance makes no difference. Might as well buy from the Betty Crocker range. By the way, what kind of marketing ploy is that family name? Reverse psychology? Multi-layered irony? Crock of what, exactly?

In short, the labour saved no longer justifies the money squandered. Taking gleaming appliances to the side of the road on trash collection mornings was fast becoming a weekly event. No more. Enough is enough. And I have a feeling that we won’t be alone.

Rant over. Time for a cup of tea.

water boiling

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