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Archive for July, 2007

I haven’t had much time for blogging this week because I have been reviewing books. Yes chaps I am a book reviewer – well – I’ve reviewed one or two probably not very well and not very accurately because I did drop one of them in the bath and the pages stuck together but there you are. I can now say that I have joined the ranks [tatty fringes] of serious journalism. Of course it would help if I could write in terse, well-crafted, precise sentences instead of waffling on for ages and then flitting off on tangents as soon as the fancy takes me. I notice that if you were to read any of my wordy constructions aloud you would probably die of asphyxia long before you got to the end. I should write thrillers – all beginning “It was a dark and stormy night” and go on for six pages without pausing for breath. Of course there was a time when short sentences were anathema – [now there’s a new word for the day] and were frowned upon especially by those of the legal profession who were paid by the word. That’s why your lease is forty-five pages long and dotted with hithertos and theretofores like currants in a figgy pudding. Plus it makes the author appear more substantial and formidably erudite the more words s/he uses even though s/he probably has no more idea than I do about what the hell s/he’s driveling on about. And as an aside if you want to appear to be the final authority on some topic or other it also helps if you can sprinkle your text liberally with quotations from Virgil or the Bible – using the original Latin Vulgate of course – or perhaps include a few pithy Bon Motes in Arcadian French.

But I digress – where was I? Oh yes – reviewing books. I enjoyed a couple of them – in fact one or two were a really interesting read i.e. Gordon Ramsay’s recent autobiographical offering: “Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen” – which goes quite some way to explaining just why he loses his temper so often and uses swear words as punctuation and hates his dad and has a low sperm count [standing in front of hot stoves all day – be warned] but then I ran into a veritable Great Wall of China of a book, which as you know was built to keep out invaders – and obviously book reviewers as well. I could not get through it with a steam shovel – or possibly a conquering horde of Mongolian Marauders. So now I’m on the horns of a dilemma [there’s those dilemma horns again]. The work is self-published – what was once called a ‘Vanity Press’ production – and before you give us the old French shoulder shrug and sneer at this, I believe Honore de Balzac [also known as Honorary Ballsack amongst the uncouth classes] availed himself of the Vanity Press of his day – although I could be making that up – my memory for Farcical French potboilers is somewhat hazy.

Anyway – what to do about a really bad book? Do I slam it to the ground and jump up and down on the authors literary day-dreams or do I try and be politically correct – sort of like being the Paula Abdul of the book reviewing world – and say something along the lines of “this book was written entirely to the author’s own personal standards of satisfaction and was no doubt enjoyed by not only him but all of his friends and relatives too – and by the way I liked his picture on the back”, or do I go off on a Gordon Ramsay and declaim that he writes about as well as my old aunt Sally who is chained to a wall down at the local looney bin and thinks she’s the Shah of Iran? If there are any ‘real’ reviewers out there perhaps they would be kind enough to share some insights with me. In the meantime I have found a suitable use for what I like to call the ‘Doorstopper’ book – it’s quite good for resting your coffee cup on while you read about Jamie Oliver roasting his wienies over a slow fire [he evidently likes to cook in the nude – I never realized that his TV show the “Naked Chef” meant precisely that].

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Now I know what [crap] writers block is. For a week I’ve been trying to think of something moderately interesting, faintly controversial, vaguely sarcastic, slightly funny, deeply profound in the shallowest sense – or whatever – anything – to blog about and coming up blank. What must it be like for real writers like J.K.Rowling, contractually obligated to churn out seven Harry Potters in a row, whether she wants to or not, whether she’s absolutely sick and bloody tired of sodding Harry Potter and the wand he rode in on? Now that’s pressure. I ordered my copy early – about two months ago – and so added to the mountain of cash about to flow her way – again. They say that she’s the richest woman in England. She’s got more money than Liz and Phil and the crew – she’s probably got more money than Bill Gates and that’s certainly saying something. He has enough to have a string of bonfires down the west side of the United States and up the other entirely composed of tenners if he so desires – and I hope he doesn’t because think of all those people starving in gutters who could do with one or two. You know them, they are the people sleeping on heating grates [in Canada at least] – we step over them on our way to work in the mornings.

The latest and last [maybe] Harry Potter comes out, in what, two days from now? Spoilers on the Net are rife [it’s ok you can uncover your eyes because I’m not gonna tell you the ending although I do know that, according to Rowling herself, the last word will be ‘Scar’. Hmm. We will have to ponder on the meaning of that won’t we chaps.. But you can bet your bat cape that the dastardly Voldemort will have something evil to do with it. Anyone want to start a betting pool?

So what is Rowling going to do now then? Having finished her Opus Dei she can hardly dispense with the old ink pot and hang up her quill pen now can she? I can’t see a steady stream of seedy murder mysteries suddenly springing forth can you? Mind you – it’s possible. They could feature one PC Potter of the Dales who solves crimes right from under the noses of those smarty-pants London cops using his crystal ball and a divining rod. He will be at odds with the senior inspector, one Detective Inspector Snape, who keeps an odd assortment of pets and things in dusty jars on his desk.

They say that Arthur Conan Doyle, after dispatching Sherlock and his arch-nemesis Moriarty to watery doom down under the waterfall, flung his pen against the wall so hard that the steel nib stuck in the wood paneling with a resounding ‘sproingggggg’. He no doubt uttered a few choice Victorian epithets as well but we will probably never know. Not unless he comes back from the afterlife and tells us that is. After all, he *was* president of the Psychical Research Society and is possibly up there discussing further plot developments with H.G.Wells, Henry James, Verne, and his other mystical buds.

Many authors get caught on the horns of the same dilemma [how come dilemmas have horns]. Anyway …. Many other authors have discovered to their dismay that they are locked into writing about the same characters forever. Think of Ian Fleming who could no more dispense with Bond than put on bat wings and fly to Gotham. Fortunately – or unfortunately as the case may be – he conveniently died before he got the chance to find out. Clive Custler has recently made a few unsuccessful and financially suicidal attempts to knock off his long-time hero Dirk Pitt in order to substitute one Kurt Austin instead. However, Kurt bears some slight resemblance to Dirk – he is tall and athletic, loves old cars, has or rather had dark wavy hair now gone a pleasing – but manly – shade of silver. He has a cheerful indomitable side-kick – is a member of NUMA and has a habit of getting himself embroiled in international incidents having to do with evil corporations hell-bent on polluting the oceans and murdering innocent cruise-ship passengers who only signed up for a last-minute trip around the Bahamas. Hmm.

So I don’t know what Rowling will do without Harry. I suppose sitting in the basement of the mansion counting up the money could take quite some time so that will keep her occupied for a bit while she ponders the exact meaning of the word ‘obscurity’. Listen – what’s that sound I hear? Oh I think it’s the sound of her publishers crying their way to the bank one last time …

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Private Lives

Do you ever get the feeling that someone’s watching you? You’re probably right. No it’s not just the nosy neighbours who want to know why you feel the need to go to the store seventeen times per day, it’s the Traffic Cam and the Bank Machine Cam, and the Toll Road Cam [easy to fool that one – just drive backwards up the highway – but then of course you’ll have your face on Police Cam not to mention ‘America’s Most Wanted’ and possibly TMZ]. We live in a surveillance society – some of us more than others. I read that in the UK there are more cameras than people and there are entire police forces devoted to searching through hours and hours of video tape searching for that terrorist face in the crowd or maybe that grannie trying to smuggle soap powder to her relatives in Lithuania, we can never be sure. Or just maybe that grannie has swallowed a condom full of some naughty substance and is now incarcerated in the special ‘holding room’ at the airport while the customs blokes scrutinize her every movement – pun intended.

So it seems that someone or some thing i.e. a camera, has our fizzogs on tape just about every minute of the day that we spend outside. Inside the cameras watch us through the Web instead. Big Brother would be proud and no doubt a member of FaceBook. Mind you I had to dismantle my own web cam – for one thing people out there in webland could not possibly be interested in watching me staring into space for hours on end apart from the mentally challenged – and speaking of the mentally challenged, I also got rid of the web cam because certain ‘photographers’ kept sending me live pictures – of things – usually very small things it must be said, but not things I would want on the screen when the kiddies walked in.

Many people feel discomforted that personal privacy is coming to an end – if it ever existed at all that is. History is full of allusions to people living in tribes which also meant sharing the old longhouse or the log hut or the cave because if you didn’t you were likely to wind up inside a hungry dinosaur’s tum [yes yes I know that MAN and dinosaurs didn’t exist at the same time – but you get the idea] having been naturally selected as it’s afternoon snack while you wandered – foolishly – alone around the plain looking at daisies. There was safety, not to mention warmth and security, in numbers. Privacy – in the sense of personal privacy that is – appears then to be a modern invention. Up to a few hundred years or so ago we all lived together for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above plus it was much easier to pay the rent if there were several of you bringing in the groats at the same time. People lived in extended families which included several generations from the very young to the very old and cantankerous – unless you were members of a certain native group that is, who chose to set old grannie and granddad afloat on an ice-flow for the polar bears to eat instead when they got too annoying and started drooling on the rug.

Living the communal life had many side-benefits. You always had someone around to babysit the kids for instance while you went out to join in the monthly sun dance, and more kids meant more hands to the plough, or the threshing thingy or the mill wheel – which had the added benefit of saving on donkeys, and hence freed up more grain for the oat-cakes, or the whiskey, whichever your preferred. Of course more whiskey also meant more kids so you see it was a sort of self-fulfilling cycle and everyone was happy – except grandma of course who had to babysit all those little nippers running around the cave floor and falling in the river. This may have been why certain children [usually females] were deemed to be surplus to requirements and were left out on the hillside as offerings to the Gods, or the hyenas, whoever got there first. [All together now: Awwww].

More privacy means less communal support. It also of course means that more money in the form of wage labor [I see all you Marxists out there sitting up and opening an eye] must be produced in order to support the family unit. And mum cannot be expected to work out in the fields all day while the kids run wild at home even though Social Services didn’t exist at the time and if they had would be too busy scooping up squalling babies off hillsides to attend to *your* lack of parenting skills. This means that dad had to get up off his duff, stop dozing in the sun while the women did all the work and go out and find a job! There was a price to be paid for privacy you see. Gone was the old way of life and it was in with the new – which meant a need for transportation, which meant a need for cars and buses and trains and planes and motorbikes – and roads and runways and bicycle paths. And of course dad couldn’t just turn up at the office in his loincloth now could he? So that meant a need for clothing stores and shoe shops and sweat shops and Nike.

So it seems then that the cost of personal privacy is the end of civilization as we know it – and it’s possibly responsible for global warming too.

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Sicko

Last night we went to see ‘Sicko’ [http://www.michaelmoore.com/], the latest offering from famed documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.  This is the first time, certainly in our family’s memory, that we have ever paid good money to go and see a documentary for heavens sake in a mainstream theatre – which is witness to the growing fame of Moore, who previously won awards for ‘Bowling for Columbine’ which, like ‘Sicko’, is an indictment of the sickness [no pun intended] within modern American Society today.  As a British Canadian I was appalled by the abuses wrought on the poor and the sick by the monopoly of the ‘always for profit’ run HMO’s [Health Maintenance Organizations] and the careless disregard they evidently have for the welfare of patients and their families who seek any kind of medical intervention.   Many of them have paid hefty premiums all their working lives in order to make sure that in the event of catastrophic illness they and their dependents will be covered for the exceptional expenses lumped upon them by privately run medical facilities in the States.  Like you no doubt I knew that sick people in America were in deep trouble if they had no health insurance – but it never occurred to me before I saw the film that those who could actually afford to pay their premiums would also be sailing in the same boat.

 

It appears that HMO’s deny claims at the drop of a hat – deeming the most routine treatment plan or procedure to be ‘experimental’ i.e. a hysterectomy for cervical cancer, or a bone-marrow transplant for a leukemia sufferer, leaving the patient without other resources, literally, to die.  Physicians and hospital administrators admit that they turn patients away if the HMO denies the claim, leaving them to find a ‘mission’ hospital or to sell everything they own to raise the cold hard cash baby – that’s the choice.  And with increasing frequency the choice is to die because there is simply not enough money in the house or the car or the furniture to cover the escalating cost of medical treatment.  The price of prescription drugs is excessive and can represent a crippling burden to a chronic sufferer – particularly if that sufferer is elderly and living on a pension perhaps or else is someone working three menial jobs to keep their family afloat.  No wonder they often try to sneak over the Canadian or Mexican border to save a few bucks at the pharmacy or to secure treatment if they can.

 

A few years ago I had a series of crucial operations, without which I would probably be dead myself by now.  The Canadian government sponsored Ontario Health Insurance Plan covered all of my expenses, including a lengthy [by today’s standards] hospital stay and the services of several first-rank specialists, nurses, anesthetists and surgeons. This series of treatments would have cost me well over half a million dollars had I been a United States resident at the time.  And of course if I wasn’t a resident I would have had to pay for it out of my own pocket – and if I didn’t have pockets that deep well then it would have been ‘bye bye seeya’ and have a nice day – or whatever portion of the day you’ve got left that is.

 

The health care system here in Canada, fortunately, is not run for profit, but of course is not without its faults.  There are frequently long delays and wait-lists for certain treatments, orthopedic surgery for example, and now and then we read of cancer patients being transported to treatment centres that are lengthy distances away from their homes and family.   Some treatments are inexplicably deemed to be ‘cosmetic’, i.e. breast reconstruction after a mastectomy but it is at least open to argument and appeal – or if that fails you can always start shouting to the newspaper.  I take it that in the case of the HMO’s ‘NO’ means ‘NO’, and that’s that – end of discussion.

 

There is a critical shortage of medical personnel in Ontario after the depredations of a certain politician named Mike Harris pared the health-care budget down to zip.  We need more nurses and we need more doctors, particularly general practitioners, because many of us have been ‘off-list’ when it comes to having our very own family doc for many years.  We make do with teaching centers that rotate their newly qualified doctors every four months, which means that you seldom encounter the same doc twice.  This seriously impedes any semblance of continuity of care and any kind of personalized treatment plan.  The doctor you see is the one that happens to be on call that day and to him/her you are not really much more than a number, just another patient in the crowd.  S/he doesn’t know your name, s/he doesn’t know the name of your cat or the fact that you are allergic to cotton balls and she would pass by you blindly in a crowd…  BUT we have some of the finest hospitals in the world – we are in the first rank when it comes to cardiac care, reconstructive surgery, pediatrics, cancer care etc.  People come from all around the world to be treated at the very best facilities that you will find anywhere.  And with few exceptions we don’t present you with a bill.  We don’t ask to see your insurance card before we load you into the ambulance and we don’t let you die alone on the sidewalk on Yonge Street if you don’t have one.  The only bill you are likely to receive from a Canadian hospital is the bill for your TV rental and your phone, and that’s about that.   Well, you might have to stump up [pun intended] something towards the cost of your crutches and your cast now and again but nothing for that MRI or that X-ray or those blood tests or that 10 hour op.

 

When I lived in England the National Health System was amongst the best medical insurance plan in the world covering just about any treatment or procedure you could mention with the possible exception of that face lift you were forced to travel to Poland for.  But apart from that as far as I remember everything else was covered – eye-glasses and dental treatments too [something which we have to pay for unless we contribute to an extended health care plan usually available through employment].  I don’t know about now because I’ve been away for 40 years and things may very well have changed.  I do remember sitting on a hard bench in a crowded casualty room for hours on end waiting for my number to be called but that’s probably the same the world over.  Moore’s documentary suggests that the French health care system is actually even better than the NHS [didn’t know that did you], and in fact is probably the best in the world.  And compared to the United States even a poverty-stricken country like Cuba easily outstrips the States in quality of care and accessibility for all to modern facilities and treatment centers.  No one is turned away and no-one dies in the street for lack of medical attention in Cuba anymore than they do in any of the ‘civilized’ countries in the West – except for the States.  And if France ranks number 1, the US ranks somewhere around 38th in the world, just above Slovenia in standard and accessibility of care.  This is pretty frightening.  I think it’s going to be the last time I travel to Florida for that annual holiday to Disney or the winter trip to Vegas without seventeen insurance policies and a return flight ticket clutched in my shaking hands – don’t know about you…

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Have you ever seen a ghost?  I have – several in fact and not only when I’ve had one too many vodka spritzers.  We live in an old Victorian house and although there are no bumps in the night and physical apparitions going on here – well, there may be but I rely on the dogs and cats to warn me because I read somewhere that canines and pussies are much more ‘sentient’ than we are.  However so far the only reaction I’ve got from them is mad barking every time the screen bangs against the front door or one of the goldfish farts.  The rest of the time they spend snoring with their legs up in the air and their tongues lolling out – indicating to me that they would be less than useless if burglars broke in let alone ghosts.  But we do have a ghost in the house – I swear it.  He – or she – likes to hide things and after a few days of watching us tearing the house apart looking for the car keys puts them back in really obvious places – like the middle of the carpet where we will be sure to trip over them if we’re not careful.

 

This has happened many times.  Once I lost my cheque-book and went through the house as usual throwing things around and swearing only to find it right in the middle of the floor.  Another time I set my new barbecue scraper-offer down on the kitchen table but when I went to use it found it was gone.  The expected mad scramble around the house ensued with the usual accusations and recriminations and refusals to admit that anyone else had even seen it let alone moved it.  Three days later there it was hanging from the key rack outside the backdoor large as life and about as close to my nose as you could get without squinting.  So what is going on here?  The only explanation is that we have a ghost with a sense of humour who likes to have a giggle at our expense.  Just in case I’ve tried asking said ghost to aport a million dollars or so on to the coffee table but with no success so far.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

However, I have experienced more tangible evidence of ghosts than the one who hides the barbecue scraper.  I once saw my son-in-law, deceased about a year, driving down the street alongside me.  I looked at him – he looked at me – and then he was gone.  This would have been a perfectly ordinary occurrence if hadn’t been for the fact that he was dead.  He looked quite solid and just as he always did and in case you think I might have been hallucinating or drunk it was about 11am in the morning and far too early for tippling and besides that, his wife was sitting beside me and she saw him too.  Years before that I flew back to England with my ex-husband after receiving an urgent call that his dad was slipping away fast and time was short.  Half-way across the Atlantic I distinctly heard a voice in my ear saying ‘I’ve gone now’ and I knew we were going to be too late.  When we got there I was not at all surprised to discover that he had passed at the precise time I heard his voice.  We stayed of course for the funeral which was held on a dreary day in Devon in a dreary old church that he had never attended.  A heavy depression lay upon the mourners as we listened to the eulogy and the service.  Afterwards we walked up the aisle in respectful procession with our heads bowed but out the corner of my eye I suddenly caught sight of an old man sitting in one of the back pews with a wide grin plastered all over his face nodding to us all as we passed.  I thought it was somewhat inappropriate to be having a laugh when someone had just passed on but assumed it was some mad old relative suffering from severe dementia and the notion that he was attending a tea party with either the Queen or Alice – I couldn’t be sure.  But later, at the family gathering, out came the photo album, and you guessed it, it was dad that I had seen in the church, no doubt having a giggle at attending his own funeral and obviously pleased as punch at the turn-out.

 

One of my favourite Brit shows is ‘Most Haunted’, although they never seem to get anything substantive on camera and Derek Acora’s ‘possessions’ did appear to be somewhat contrived after a while.  I much prefer David Wells who seems to have the more genuine gift of the two although Cieran O’Keefe keeps trying to spoil it all by coming up with various ‘logical’ explanations to discount psychic phenomena.  Did you see the one on board the Queen Mary?  I couldn’t sleep for a week and I haven’t been near a swimming pool on a deserted ship since.  Got any ghost stories to share?  Come on then – I’m listening..

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Today is July 4th, celebrated by Americans around the globe [or ‘Merkins’ as we prefer to call them] – getting all in a lather about the final ratification of the Declaration of Independence. You know the one – the document that gave all Americans – or so they believe – the right to bear arms and so blow each other’s brains out whenever they feel like it. Well – not exactly when they feel like it but certainly if another of their number attempts to gain unlawful entry to their property or wants to grab their money at the cash machine. This holiday – and let’s be honest here, all these civic celebrations are merely excuses to take an extra day off work – was substituted for the other celebration that had marked the date of the Boston Massacre in 1770, when us Brits killed 5 local soldiers. I don’t know much about the circumstances that led up to the event but it was hardly a massacre was it?

 

Question for the day class – “How many people must be popped off for a murder to become a massacre?’. It also of course depends upon which side you take in the debate. When Custer for example met his Waterloo [not to mention a few thousand very annoyed Indians] on the greasy grass of the Little Bighorn it was widely reported in the newspapers of the time that he and the 200 or so men he had with him had been ‘massacred’ by the Indians. However, it was also reported that he and his men fought to the last man and that gallant Custer himself was the last to die in what was to be his final glorious battle*. So it’s a battle if you are on the ‘good side’ and a massacre if you’re on the ‘bad’. Are you wearing a black hat or a white hat – carrying a rifle or a tomahawk – well, the Indians had rifles too and from all accounts were far better shots than the US cavalry but that’s beside the point. The point is that the evil savage Indians apparently went around massacring people for no good reason other than they were savages and the noble cavalrymen fought glorious battles against said evil Indians in order to show them the error of their ways – such as protecting their wives and children from slaughter, or fighting to defend their traditional hunting grounds against the encroachment of the white settlers, not to mention their culture, their religious freedoms, the freedom of the ranges and other entirely inappropriate things like that.

 

We have a lot to answer for don’t we – and by we I mean us the dominant white race that has from time immemorial taken what we wanted whenever we wanted it without regard to the people or peoples who stood in our way. When we wanted slaves we imported them from Africa and forced them to work for nothing on our plantations – and in this the Brits are just as guilty as the Americans – and when we wanted land and gold we just moved the Indians out of the way and stuck them on reservations where they ultimately became dependent upon us for just about everything. For a nomadic people this was tantamount to cultural genocide. Here in Canada we do at least make an attempt to encourage our indigenous peoples to retain the old customs but of course there is still much abuse of this system and the debate is far from over. Old tensions still run high as I imagine they do in all countries with ‘first nations’ people – i.e. those who got there first, like the Maoris, the Australian Aborigines, the Canadian Inuit.

 

Of course none of any of this is new – the dominant race has always subjugated the weaker one. Look back a few thousand years in history if you don’t believe me. I bet Attila the Hun for example was a real old sweetie to the tribes he conquered. In Athens and Rome slaves outnumbered ‘citizens’ something like two to one [which obviously begs the question as to why the slaves didn’t just rise up and knock off the opposition? But of course they did from time to time and the roads leading from Rome were lined with the corpses of those who had tried – and failed – to do so]. I know for a fact that Kirk Douglas was there – jutting dimpled chin and all – I saw the movie myself.

 

And what has this to do with July 4th and the Declaration of Independence? Well nothing – but it gives me an excuse to discuss the idiocies of Custer and deplore our treatment of native peoples. I bet they would have liked to celebrate an Independence Day too.

 

* This is all bunk – we don’t know who was the first and who was the last to die at the Little Big Horn, for the simple reason that there were no survivors and the other troops were far enough away that they didn’t even know Custer and his men had been killed until days later. Several Indian scouts did come forward afterwards with various reports to that effect but it is now a reasonable certainty that they had actually left the scene before the fight took place and were just telling the reporters what they wanted to hear. It is also clear that Custer was either breathtakingly arrogant or otherwise terminally stupid. How else can you explain the fact that he ordered Reno with his 120 some odd men to charge across the river to meet a force of more than 1500 enraged Indians while he and his band of 200 or so raced down the hill on the other side. Boggles the mind…

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