Thursday, January 18, 2018

Play less nice?

Just as I was beginning to think that 2018 is going to be a kinder and gentler year I turned on the television. Definitely a mistake.

Exploding on the screen was an advertisement for a new movie titled Proud Mary. Mary is a killer for hire and the commercial showed me an awesome display of booming handguns and rifles, plus fireballs and violent car crashes. The air was thick with lead as hundreds of rounds were fired in brief clips from the film.

Mercifully it was only a commercial and not the full film, which I will avoid.

I tuned then to the World Junior Hockey Championships and had the misfortune of catching a commercial break in the on-ice action. The commercial was a new Nike creation that shows a nice-guy Canadian hockey player taking his pre-game training run.

In 90 seconds the guy knocks over a row of garbage cans, passes a kid destroying a garage door with hockey stick and puck, terrorizes a motorist, knocks over some mannequins, smashes through a glass plate at the arena and elbows numerous players on ice.

As he skates down the ice he smiles widely, revealing the words Play Less Nice tattooed on his teeth.

The message to Canadian athletes, kids in particular, is that Canadians generally are gentle folks, who when they take to the field or the ice should not play nice.

Am I overreacting by finding the ad offensive and just plain stupid? Maybe I am, because I have heard no complaints or outcries about the ad. And violence has become so common that large parts of society have become immune to it.

Ask people on the street if they feel there is too much violence on television, in video games and other forms of electronic media and a large majority will say yes. Yet violence in media continues to increase.

There are stacks of studies showing that violence in media has become more graphic, more sadistic and more sexual in recent years. There also are hundreds of studies showing that there is a connection between media violence and aggressive behaviour among people, particularly children.

The American Psychiatric Association has reported that by age 18 the average U.S. youth will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence.

Research has shown that people who consume a lot of violent media tend to see the world as a war-like place where aggressive behaviour is normal. Also, the more violence we consume, the less sensitive we become to real-life violence, and less empathetic to the suffering of others.

Perhaps just as important, some people who consume a lot of violence through media begin to see the world as a much more hostile place than it actually is.

A quote in Psychiatric Times some years back keeps coming to mind.

 “You turn on the television, and violence is there,”  Emanuel Tanay, a forensic psychiatrist for more than 50 years was quoted in the medical trade magazine. “You go to a movie, and violence is there. Reality is distorted. If you live in a fictional world, then the fictional world becomes your reality.”

It is easy to begin identifying with the characters we see on screens. We see the characters solving their problems through violence, and find ourselves imitating them to solve our own.

So according to Nike if you are not achieving what you want to achieve by being a nice Canadian, then play less nice.

Americans play less nice and we see the results. The U.S. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner.

Americans are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries.

Analysis of FBI data shows that 11,000 people in the U.S. were murdered with guns in 2016 compared with 9,600 in 2015, an increase of roughly 15 per cent.

The Nike commercial was created by Wieden and Kennedy, a large American advertising agency. It’s an American message that belongs among Americans, not Canadians.

Unfortunately that’s not likely because most of what Canadians view on television, video games, movies, and video sites like YouTube comes from America.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Year of the twins

The New Year brings huge news ­- there will be no nuclear war with North Korea. That’s my New Year’s scoop, based on a remarkable discovery.

Through deep-dive investigative reporting I have learned that  Kim Jong-un and Donald J. Trump are related. They are in fact twins! That’s right, born into the same family, but separated at birth.

So stop fretting about nuclear war because twins, although they sometimes yell at each other, will never harm each other.

Some will say that is ridiculous. Fake news! But look at the evidence.

Kim and Trump look alike. Both are chubby and have penguin-like gaits.

Their dumpy physiques are the result of bad diets. Kim binges on imported Swiss cheese, while Trump inhales four Big Macs at a lunch sitting.

Both men are obsessed with their hair. Trump grows his long on the side and combs it over to cover his bald spot. Kim has gone to a trapezoid doo that looks like an old-fashioned desk telephone perched on his head.

Kim has decreed that all North Korean males wear their hair similar to his. Trump has not gone that far, probably because most American men cannot afford boxcar quantities of blonde dye and hair spray.

Neither is a picture of sartorial elegance. Kim wears a dark and dull Mao tunic while Trump prefers his baggy blue suit and bright red tie that hangs well below his belt so it points suggestively to his crotch.

Their educations have been similar. Neither was very bright in school.

Kim went to a top private school in Switzerland where he became addicted to cheese and basketball. He flunked there so his father moved him to a public school and into a lower grade. Trump went to two different colleges but got better grades in sports than anything else.

Both men are fabulously wealthy, Kim the richer by far. Kim is the wealthiest person in North Korea with access to $5 billion and owns a private island. Trump is only the 248th wealthiest person in America with $3.1 billion.

Kim recruits young virgins to his Gippeumjo, which are ‘pleasure squads’ for his entertainment. Trump says that because he is a celebrity he can do anything with women he meets, including grabbing them by the genitals.

Both Trump and Kim like to be referred to as Dear Leader, and each is Commander-in-Chief of his armed forces, but neither has any military experience. Trump missed Vietnam because of heel spurs that don’t seem to have restricted his golf game. Kim learned war manoeuvres by playing video games.

These twins are loud and boastful guys. Kim brags that he learned to drive at age three and invents cancer cures in his spare time. Trump boasts his greatest asset is that he is not mentally ill but in fact a “very stable genius”.

Recently Kim boasted that his nuclear missiles  can reach any part of the U.S. and he holds the nuclear button at his desk. Not to be outdone, Trump boasted that his nuclear button is bigger and stronger than Kim’s.

Each shouts a lot. When Trump doesn’t like someone, he yells “You’re Fired” and they are gone. When Kim doesn’t like someone he shouts “Ready, Aim, Fire” and staff arrive with a body bag to carry the corpse away.

Sure, they yell at each other a lot, but that’s only sibling rivalry, done in fun. I mean if you had a twin who was obsessed with war toys you too would affectionately call him Little Rocket Man. It’s only natural.

So what more evidence is needed to show that they are in fact twins and will not start throwing nukes at each other?

Even their names give clues to their personalities. The un in Jong-un means peaceful or kindness. Trump in its earliest English form means breaking wind.


Friday, December 29, 2017

The pain of being mechanically challenged

If there is reincarnation, I want to come back as a motor mechanic.

That’s because my current life has been a series of misadventures with machines that burn fossil fuels.

The latest involve a faithful old truck that will not move until it has been warmed up for 40 minutes, an ATV that shut down because of overheating and a snowblower that never overheats, in fact refuses to start unless its spark plug is warmed with a hair dryer.

I have a woeful history of trying to fix things on my own. It’s not that I am uninterested in motorized things or unwilling to tinker when they break down. But my brain’s tinkering cells go into overdrive and become confused whenever I attempt to fix something.

I tried fixing a cranky snowmobile one time. I seemed to have done everything right until I pressed the starter button and the engine exploded into flames.

Not long after that I forgot to shut the lights on my little sports car and the battery ran down. It was parked on a downward slope and had a standard transmission so the fix was obvious. I would get it rolling downhill, jump in and pop the clutch to get the engine turning.

The slope was slightly steeper than I calculated. The car began rolling and when I tried to jump in, the open door bumped me into the ditch. The car rolled progressively faster toward a sharp bend overlooking the lake.

The car never reached the water, having been grabbed and stopped by a large poplar tree. The auto body shop bill was quite a bit larger than the cost of a battery charger, as I recall.

Then there was the time that a friend gave me an old but perfectly usable snowmobile. It started and ran great just before we loaded it onto the truck. I was going to drop it off at my cottage.

It was mid-February and I was not wearing winter gear, but that was not a problem. I would quickly pull the machine off the truck and drive it the short distance into the cottage where I had winter clothes.

The machine pulled off the truck easily, but would not start. I fiddled with the choke, checked the carb and a variety of other things as hypothermia began to set in. As I shivered and cursed, another snowmobile approached.

Its rider, dressed in black, got off his machine, approached, reached out and turned off the kill switch, then turned the key and my machine roared to life.

The stranger turned and left without a word.

My latest misadventure involved my ATV. I was plowing with it last week when a flashing thermometer symbol appeared on the console. I checked the ATV manual to see what that was about.

The manual said a flashing thermometer means the ATV is overheating and should be shut down immediately.

I went to work trying to find the problem. The radiator was hidden under the plastic hood, which had an entry panel. I got to it, but not before breaking the entry panel locking pins.

The coolant was at its proper level so I put the entry panel in place and secured it with my favourite tool – duct tape. I checked out other parts of the machine, found nothing, but determined the ATV the cooling fan was not working.

Broken cooling fans are a bit beyond my mechanical skills so I called the ATV dealer and made an appointment.

I spent an hour shovelling out the ATV trailer, then loaded the machine, strapped it down and hauled it down the highway to the dealership.

The mechanic asked a couple of questions before logging the machine into the repair line.

“So you say the coolant is fine and you checked the fuse, right?”

Fuse? ATV’s have fuses?

He gave me a strange look, pulled the seat off the ATV then opened a little black box that I always had wondered about but never opened. There were rows of little coloured fuses.

He pulled one fuse out and said: “Yep, blown fuse.”

Later that day I was back plowing, my face cherry red, and not from the cold.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Memories

The best Christmas presents are memories.
Happy memories of times spent with special people, some now gone. Memories that never break or wear out, and are as wonderful and inspiring this Christmas as they were last year, or five years ago.
My absolute favourite Christmas memory I have written about many times. The number of times is irrelevant because every time I write about it, tears fall on my keyboard. This is that memory:
Fresh-fallen snow protested beneath the crush of my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard.
Skuur-eek, skuur-eek.

The boots ignored the sounds. They moved on, ribbed rubber bottoms and laced high leather tops creating a meandering wake in the ankle deep snow. 
From each side of the lane, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the backsides of the bungalows, dropped there to rest by an impatient blizzard just passed through. Their crests were indistinguishable against the white stucco walls but nearly reached tufted piles of fluffy snow clinging nervously to windowsills and eavestrough lips.
The squeaks flew through the still night air, dodging fat flakes that fell heavy and straight onto my cap bill, occasionally splashing into my face flushed warm from the walk. I could have rode back home from Christmas Eve Mass with the family, but the teenage mind prefers independence, and it was a chance to visit friends along the way.
Faint strains of music joined the squeaking as I approached our back fence. I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window. I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys. Notes and smoke rose together into an icy sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars and the frosty moon the Ojibwe called Minidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon that appears small and cold early in winter.
I held my breath to hear better and determined that the music was the Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” and the notes came from the window in my grandmother’s room. It was open to the cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then and at gatherings cracked a window to thin the smoke. They sang the first verse, and, when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Niiii ... iiight Diii...vine! ...” That’s the part where the notes rise higher and higher until the singer reaches an awesome note.
The solo voice belonged to my grandmother, and I knew she was hitting that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that crippling rheumatoid arthritis had made her prison for sixteen years. She was unable to walk without assistance and had trouble holding a cigarette between her gnarled fingers.
The others had stopped singing to listen to her. The second time she hit the high notes at the words “O Night Divine,” a shiver danced on my spine.
When she finished singing “O Holy Night,” the other voices started up again, this time with “Silent Night” and other favourite carols. I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants — my mom, dad, and some neighbours — crowded into the ten-by-ten bedroom that was my grandmother’s world. They sang long into the night, mostly in French because the neighbours were the Gauthiers who seldom spoke English to my grandmother and my mother.
After the singing ended my mother served tourtière, which I slathered with mustard. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts.
I have long forgotten what I got, and it doesn’t matter, because my real gift came many years later: the realization that those high notes were not solely the products of my grandmother’s lungs. They came from a strength far beyond anything that a mere body can produce.
They were high notes driven by something far stronger than flesh — an unbreakable spirit.
(This column was adapted from my book Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering a Secret Past – Dundurn Group 2007)