Thursday, December 24, 2009

Red Bear


I'm going to have to do something with this girl, I thought. She goes from calm and happy to Mount Vesuvius in under half a second, and then...you never know what she'll do. I looked down at my crotch, my fingers lightly touching the spot on my leg where contact had been made. That was close. And it would have, um, really hurt...

Silly me. A few months earlier, I had assumed that rugby would have been enough of an aggression channel for Red Bear (a.k.a Shortcake), my freckled, red-headed, pepperpot of a nine year old daughter. In reality, three hours of rugby each Sunday tended to calm her down for the rest of the day. But by the next day, she was back to normal. Usually sweet, friendly, and confident, but with a serious temper. So...I got her and Lady Lu horseriding lessons. But that wasn't enough, either. Obviously.

What had happened a few minutes earlier was just the latest indication of that. I had kicked the can for the third time in a row, freeing all of Red Bear's prisoners and thus forcing her to to have to count again while we all hid. But in the moment that I ran up and kicked it, the petite warrior queen had let out a primal shriek and let fly with a lightning quick Muay Thai-style roundhouse kick which had landed perilously close to my broncos.

"GEEZ! Red Bear! Control yourself!", I said. "Relax!". I started laughing because it was so unexpected and outrageous (I don't allow any hitting or kicking amongst the kids at all), but really...this sort of thing was getting serious. The explosions (mostly verbal) were fairly regular. She was so full of passion, spark, energy, fearlessness, so possessed by a kind of vivacious drive which would sometimes instantly explode into a kind of fury; it was so much a part of her, that she was going to have to learn how to channel it, control it, direct it. And now was the time. Soccer, rugby, horses, biking, rough play on the trampoline, taking her to the park all the time, nice calm discussions about how to handle frustrations, time-outs, occasionally barking at her when she started to lose it...all did a little bit, but she needed more. What else could I try?

Hmmmmmmm. Oh. Yes. Of course.

I called the gym the next day.

"Hello, 'Q' Gym, Sarah speaking", said the chipper-sounding girl.

"Hi Sarah. I have a question for you. I have a girl here who I think might like to try Mixed Martial Arts down there".

"Tell me about her", said Sarah.

This is not one word of a lie.

"Well, ummmm...she....". I stammered, and didn't really know where to begin, and then, it just sort of came out: "she...she has red hair".

Sarah started laughing. "Ohhhhhhh. Ha ha ha. A redhead!".

"Yeah. Big-time".

Sarah was still laughing. "I get it, yeah. And I love it. She'll be amazing. I want to work with her!". Thank God. Sarah understands about the red hair, I thought. This sounds promising.

The next Monday (this was the 14th of this month), I showed up at the Q MMA Gym with Red Bear, my seven year old son Sno-Cone, and my four year old son Trixta. Red Bear's hair looked absolutely wild, a huge mass of long, natural curls and waves, containing what seemed like every hue of red it was possible to have: blood red, candy apple red, carrot orange, Creamsicle orange, streaks of sunshine blonde. She looked like she could just have emerged from a cave somewhere in Denmark brandishing a giant sword, ready to join a Viking raid.

We wandered into the gym area after taking our shoes off, and were greeted by Sarah - who herself had reddish hair, and who I found out, had recently been ranked the number one bantamweight female MMA fighter in the world. Wow.

"Okay you guys", she said to the six or seven kids who were already there (we were about fifteen minutes early). "Grab some of those balls over there and start throwing them around. Start trying-" (again, this is not one word of a lie; this is the God's honest truth). She said, "start trying to hit the other kids in the face!".

In that moment, I fell in love with Sarah. Not really, but you know. I'm so sick of control freak school yard monitors telling my kids they're not allowed to throw pine cones, or snowballs, or rugby balls, or dirt clods, or wrestle, or do anything rambunctious, that I felt a surge of intoxicating, almost infatuating, adrenaline. The kids, for their part, seemed absolutely dumbstruck with amazement, like they couldn't believe what they'd just heard. For a split-second, they stared at each other. Then they started laughing and ran on to the mats, grabbing the mini beach balls and hurling them at each other, with a frenzied, wild abandon, laughing still.

This is completely awesome, I thought. Even Trixta was running around laughing, dodging and throwing the balls. And hell...I couldn't help it; I finally jumped in, grabbed a ball, and started playing myself, much to the delight of the kids.

After fifteen minutes of that, class officially started. For the next hour, Sarah led Red Bear, Sno-Cone (Trixta opted out of the official class), and the rest of the class through a series of punching, kicking, ducking and wrestling drills. One wrestling drill was similar to a Sumo match: two kids faced each other and tried to push each other outside the perimeter ring. Trixta and I watched Red Bear push one kid, then another, then another, then another, then another outside the ring. She didn't seem self-conscious or nervous at all. She seemed to really be enjoying herself, even though she was smaller than everyone there, even Sno-Cone, her younger brother. Maybe this will be her thing, I thought.

Time will tell whether Red Bear wants to stick with MMA. But I'll always enjoy the memory of watching her dive in, kick butt, and come out smiling. She is one special girl; and once she learns how to channel her passions, she will be unstoppable at whatever she puts her mind to. I can't wait to see that.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part 3

I want to back up a bit, because I confess the concept of emergence, at least as it is often bandied about, is not entirely clear to me.

As I noted, probably the most uncontroversial definition of emergence is that it describes an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes, like the illusory overarching "invisible hand" which seems to efficiently steer a free market economy.

But in this supposedly paradigmatic case, is the invisible hand really an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes? It doesn't seem to be, because all that Adam Smith's metaphor is meant to represent is a kind of intelligent volition - but the property of intelligent volition does not exist only at the macro economic level, but inheres in almost all of the miniature economic decisions made by individuals. So, intelligent volition is not an exclusively macro scale property; it is there at every level of economic decision.

Maybe my lack of clarity about this arises from the definition, so what follows is a different definition proposed by Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor at Adelphi University: "the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems".

Well - this is better, I suppose, since it brings in the concept of self-organization. However, I am still not sure how the free market economy possesses "novel" properties, as opposed to simply being the sum total of millions of individual economic decisions by consumers and producers.

Anyway, I could go on for pages on this, so let me put this aside for the moment, and at least explain how I think the term "emergence" should never be used, ever.

Imagine we are in a factory in front of a big machine fed by a conveyor belt. A worker places a lump of coal on the belt, and it enters into the machine. A minute later, out the other end, comes a live rabbit. We have absolutely no clue how any machine could turn a lump of coal into a rabbit, yet we feel pressure to explain it, somehow. Let's say we have reputations to defend...so how tempting would it be for us to simply say, "A-HA - emergence!"? Or rather, come up with some fancy explanation which takes 800 words to just, again, say "emergence"?

Judging from the example of quite a number of consciousness researchers, I would say very. But in the case of the rabbit-making machine, as in the case of consciousness, the term "emergence" is a kind of thought-terminating cliche. It does not explain; on the contrary: it distracts from the fact that we can fathom no explanation at all.

Consider some of the following quotes from consciousness researchers:

"Consciousness is not a property of individual neurons. It is a natural emergent property of the interactions of the neurons in nervous system of the body in an environment. It makes a structure that is related to lower level interactions as well as higher level thoughts, and it represents a new observational mechanism of the entire system" (Baas and Emmeriche, "On Emergence and Explanation", Intellectica, 2, 25, pp. 67 - 83).

John Searle writes:

"Consciousness is a higher-level or emergent property of the brain in the utterly harmless sense of ‘higher-level’ or ‘emergent’ in which solidity is a higher-level emergent property of H2O molecules when they are in a lattice structure (ice), and liquidity is similarly a higher-level emergent property of H2O molecules when they are, roughly speaking, rolling around on each (water)" (From "The Rediscovery of the Mind", p. 14).

Notice that as is typical of characterizations of consciousness as an emergent property, there is simply no attempt by the authors here to explain how such a process could ever occur. We hear from Baas and Emmeriche that consciousness is an "emergent property" of neuronal interaction. Okay. Great. What does that tell us? Actually, nothing. I mean, if we walked out of the factory and soberly announced to all our colleagues that "after careful observation and extensive discussion, we have determined that the explanation for the live rabbits is that they are an 'emergent property' of 'rock-machine interaction'", we'd be laughed at, and rightly so. And I just don't see how John Searle's analogy to water in its liquid and solid form, um, holds any water. What water is to ice, is not what non-consciousness is to consciousness. When water turns to ice, the previously mobile molecules become inert, and thus become bound to neighbouring molecules; i.e., they form (hard) crystalline structures. The water's chemical composition does not change, only the physical expression of that chemical composition: heat the ice, and you'll get liquid again. Heat it more, and the liquid will turn into vapour. Cool it down, it will turn into liquid again, etc.

Needless to say, there is no conceivable way in which consciousness could be like this. All we know - or all we think we know - is that we start with non-conscious stuff, and then, for some reason or other, we wind up with conscious stuff. That isn't the kind of thing that can just be casually whisked away with a water-ice analogy and an "emergence" label. It's a big, fat problem. And I'm not the only one who thinks so:

"‘A motion became a feeling!’ – no phrase that our lips can frame is so devoid of apprehensible meaning...The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable... Suppose it to have become quite clear that a shock in consciousness and a molecular motion are the subjective and objective faces of the same thing; we continue utterly incapable of uniting the two, so as to conceive that reality of which they are the opposite faces (William James, as quoted in "Consciousness" by Susan Blackmore, pp. 19-20).

"How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp" (Thomas Huxley in "Lessons in Elementary Physiology", 1986, p.193).

"How is it possible for conscious states to depend on brain states?...How can technicolour phenomenology arise from soggy grey matter?...How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness?" (Colin McGinn in "Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?", 1989, p. 349).

"The immense richness of the phenomenological world that we experience – conscious experience as such – appears to be dependent on what seems a mere trifle in the skull...Why would a mere location in the brain or the possession of a particular anatomical or biochemical feature make the activity of certain neurons so privileged that it suddenly imbues the possessor of that brain with the flavour of subjective experience, with those elusive properties that philosophers call qualia? This is the central problem of conscious experience" (Edelman & Tononi in "A Universe of Consciousness", 2000, pp. 35, 17).

"The individual cells that compose you are alive, but we now understand life well enough to appreciate that each cell is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous microrobot, no more conscious than a yeast cell. The bread dough rising in a bowl in the kitchen is teeming with life, but nothing in the bowl is sentient or aware...(but) you are made of parts that are fundamentally the same sort of thing as those yeast cells...(Daniel Dennett in "Sweet Dreams" , 2006, p.2).

And lastly, this if from John Searle, he of the water-ice analogy:

"The central question in philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how to give an account of ourselves as apparently conscious, mindful, free, rational, speaking, social, and political agents in a world that science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical particles...How can conscious experiences like your pain exist in a world that is entirely composed of physical particles and how can some physical particles, presumably in your brain cause the mental experiences? (Searle in "Mind", 2004, pp. 11, 4).

We already know Searle's "answer" to this question: emergence, the end. But, at least for me, this answer is embarrassingly inadequate. Its function is identical to that of the words "and then a miracle occurs" in the famous cartoon below:



I gotta go to sleep. More later.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Opportunity Lost: A Review of "Invictus"

Can I please run a Hollywood studio?

How could anyone screw up the story of Nelson Mandela achieving the seemingly impossible: uniting South Africa, a nation on the brink of savage civil war, via the 1995 Rugby World Cup? It is one of the most amazing, inspiring, exciting stories of all time, sitting squarely on the nexus between race, class, culture, ethnocentrism, language, politics, individual and collective identity, war and peace, the primal and the transcendent, and a dozen other stirring, difficult themes. How do you make a story like that...boring? And even worse, how do you make a story like that boring when you have all-star Morgan Freeman playing Mandela, and super-stud Matt Damon playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team (the Springboks)? And how do you make it boring when it revolves around the world's most exciting team sport?

Well, there is really only one way to make it boring: go into production with a mediocre script, get a mediocre directing job, and then get a mediocre editing job. Freeman and Damon are great as usual, but their performances can't redeem the other problems. (Damon is curiously underutilized here; he is almost a supporting actor). The result is a six out of ten movie, which - given the real life story behind it - should have been a nine or ten out ten.

I was going to write out a long review here, but I'm almost too upset to do so. The short version is:

1.) The acting performances (minus Freeman's and Damon's) are mediocre.

2.) This picture fails to adequately ram home, concisely and dramatically, what should have been its primary focus points, for example, how and why exactly rugby came to symbolize the apartheid regime in the minds of black South Africans, how it functioned in white (and particularly Afrikaaner) culture, what white fear really felt like and what the stakes for the country really were, etc. Instead, the movie meanders, and hints, and meanders again, and suggests, and meanders yet again, and just doesn't hit those emotional peaks like it should have. It often even relies on character dialogue to try to describe some of these themes, instead of showing them with dramatic scenes.

3.) The All-Blacks Jonah Lomu, in real life, is a 6'5 monster who towered over the opposition. The guy they chose to play him here looks like he's about 5'11 or something. As a result, the visual support of the sub-story line of the Springboks having to stop a one-man wrecking crew suffers.

4.) The script does not make adequately clear beforehand that the grand finale of the movie - the match against the All-Blacks - is actually the World Cup final.

5.) The film takes too much time depicting Mandela as a saint. In fact, the movie seems torn between being a movie which tells the story of how Mandela united the country through the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and being a character study of Nelson Mandela. It does neither particularly successfully, but conceivably would have done a good job of one or the other.

6.) This movie could have used a strong character as an antagonist to Mandela. Instead, Mandela's "foil" was a couple of grumpy black advisers and his sourpuss daughter, who seemed to put up only token protest.

7.) The music chosen is ridiculous, especially the sappy ballad prior to the big game.

8.) The shots of the rugby games were unbelievably fake; the movie didn't even come close to showing the true physicality, brutality, and demands of the game. It looked like everyone was taking it easy on everyone else. Also, how many shots were there looking up from the ground in the scrum? One or two would have been fine - not seven or eight. And why didn't we get to see Damon running with or passing the ball in the games? He's playing the captain of the team - how about we see him leading the charge on the pitch, instead of just shouting at guys after a try is scored? Instead, we see him pushing once in a scrum, with all the other shots involving other guys. Bizarre.

That's probably enough. Yeah, I'm upset. The story behind "Invictus" is epic; the movie based on it should have been epic, too. Instead, it is more or less a snoozer: a mediocre script directed and edited in mediocre fashion, featuring too many mediocre acting performances, resulting in a movie lacking the emotional peaks and valleys that all great movies have. Clint Eastwood was simply not the guy to direct this movie, and they should have used a different screenplay. This was an opportunity lost, for sure.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part Two


If Dennett's ideas (or perhaps better, non-ideas) were ludicrous, what else was there? One I found early on was proposed by Australian National University philosopher David Chalmers. Unusually for an idea published in academic journals, it appeared to have been inspired primarily by LSD and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album. But at least if it was spectacularly wrong, it had an element of the spectacular about it.

I find many of Chalmers's ideas unclear, but in a nutshell, he argues for panprotopsychism, the idea that consciousness may exist in the universe without depending at all on anything physical (i.e., it is a "fundamental property" of the universe, like gravity); and further, that it may just find more particular expression when matter comes together in a certain way. Amongst other things, Chalmers says that we are justified in believing that even crude information-processing systems, like thermostats, may be conscious.

The problem, I think, with Chalmers's creative ideas is that they seem unconstrained to the point of being inherently untestable (no doubt why British psychologist Susan Greenfield describes them as "unhelpful"). Somehow or other, we need ideas that empirically can justify belief in them, and I am not sure that conscious thermostats qualify for that. Still, I admire Chalmers for taking consciousness seriously, and for being bold enough to propose such ideas.

Another idea I came across early on was proposed by British philosopher Colin McGinn. Our brains, he says, are the products of evolution. This implies that the brain capacities we have are those which helped our ancestors survive. And because the capacity to answer the question of where consciousness comes from cannot conceivably be of any survival value, McGinn says, we may conclude that our brains simply have not evolved in such a way as to enable us to make any headway on this question, ever. It is simply beyond our capacity, as much so as nuclear physics is forever beyond the mental capacity of an earthworm to understand. In short, human beings will never understand consciousness. (Perhaps as a result of this evidently liberating conclusion, McGinn now spends a lot of time surfing).

This position has been dubbed "mysterianism", and has a few high profile sympathizers (Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker among them). But like Chalmers's position, it seems unhelpful and also doubtful. After all, the human brain obviously possesses high-powered reasoning capacities. Humans have been calculating astronomical distances and orbits for millenia; we devise complex codes and decipher dead languages; we split atoms and create particle colliders and invent computers and create vaccines. We build rockets and fly to the moon. We have already discovered quite a lot about the brain, and there seems to be no reason why we could not in principle understand how consciousness arises. So while I understand that in its common formulation, the question at the core of consciousness research is stupefying, I still can't buy McGinn's conclusion that consciousness is in principle unfathomable to the human mind. It just seems like way too much of a leap.

Anyway, the more I read, the more intrigued I became. I even flew to North Carolina at one point in spring of 2004 partly to chat with Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan, a leading commentator on consciousness. He was surprisingly friendly and even invited me over to his house. We hung out on his back porch chatting for about an hour. (While we chatted, Flanagan's dog came bouncing up with his favourite tennis ball, and I threw it into the woods over and over for him to retrieve...).

But Flanagan, in the end, was as much at a loss to explain how consciousness could arise from non-consciousness, as everyone else was. In fact, I noticed that many commentators, particularly psychologists and neuroscientists (Christof Koch comes to mind), who by temperament and training are far more inclined to producing empirical results, ended up arguing that we ought to continue mapping particular brain functions, like how the auditory or memory system works, instead of sitting around trying to understand where consciousness comes from in the first place. Maybe, the argument went, if we focus on understanding brain functions we already have something of a handle on, eventually the answer to the Big Question will become obvious; in the meantime, let's get some stuff done. A practical enough approach; but the minutiae of how the visuo-motor system works held little appeal to me. It was the dark gap at the heart of everything that intrigued me...

Now, one recurrent claim in the pieces I read was that consciousness was an "emergent" property (John Searle and Michael Gazzaniga come to mind) of the brain. What does this mean? Well...unfortunately - and this is really the problem - it can mean lots of different things.

However, one common understanding of the phrase "emergent property" is that it refers to an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes. The free market economy is an oft-used example. Of all the economic systems yet devised, it makes the most efficient use of resources, so much so that the famed Scottish economist Adam Smith once wrote that at the macro level, resources in a free market ecomony seemed to be guided by "an invisible hand", i.e., by a top-down intelligence and power. But in fact, there is no such top-down intelligence or power guiding the free market economy; this is, so the argument goes, a macro-level property emerging from many millions of micro-level economic transactions made by single agents (buyers and sellers), each possessing a very minute amount of information, and who often do not even act particularly rationally (for those interested in this, check out Austrian ecomonist Friedrich von Hayek's work).

This is an immediately appealing example of emergence, because while we all know that buyers and sellers have relatively minute amounts of economic information (as in, this green coat is ten dollars cheaper than that one; therefore, I'll buy this one, the end), we can easily imagine how many millions of data-impoverished economic decisions, in aggregate could produce spectacular macro scale efficiency of resource usage and distribution, and produce the illusion of a super-intelligence guiding the whole system.

Unfortunately, the word "emergence", I found, is also used in very different ways.

More later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part One


There is a mystery at the heart of all research into the human brain, and it is the mystery of consciousness. How, so the question goes, can a lump of non-conscious grey matter give rise to consciousness?

My own interest in this question began about six years ago, when I went through a period of deep introspection, and ultimately, epiphany, over the religion I was raised in. At one point, I ended up feeling like I could "observe", so to speak, parts of my mind in action which I had never before observed. In particular, I felt like I became aware that my subconscious mind had been filtering out certain evidences, questions, conclusions, and even feelings in a way, which would have caused me severe emotional distress. In a way, I felt like I became able, from some sort of detached state, to observe myself deceiving myself.

Becoming aware of this was very disturbing to me. I had no idea, never having read anything about the psyche, that it had been well established that the subconscious parts of the brain routinely filtered out all sorts of things, keeping them from the conscious parts, both for reasons of functional efficiency and to protect us from emotional distress. Thus, it was something of a revelation to read through a big, expensive book I ordered off of Amazon around that time, entitled "Essential Sources in the Study of Consciousness". This book is a compilation of articles written by top consciousness researchers, and a number of them describe studies showing the subconscious in action - including how it filters information (I was particularly struck by articles by Bruce Mangan and John Kihlstrom, psychologists at UC Berkeley).

Even after I gained clarity on the religious questions which had tormented me, I continued to read about consciousness. I was wading into the topic for the first time, but consciousness, to my mind anyway, is surprisingly alluring to novice investigators. The main reason is that no one, not even the most famous consciousness researchers out there, can give any sort of coherent account of how consciousness might arise from non-conscious brain matter. So...it almost seems like even the novice investigator might be able to solve the mystery.

Here is an example. Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book almost two decades ago now called "Consciousness Explained", in which he takes 500 pages to essentially argue that what we experience as consciousness is but an illusion, and that therefore, there is nothing to explain (perhaps the most brazen example of a non sequitir in the history of science writing). So clearly, if a famous philosopher can claim to have explained consciousness simply by claiming that consciousness is merely an illusion, which of course does not follow at all (the whole point is that regardless of whether we are merely imagining ourselves to be conscious or not, our capacity to imagine itself is the very thing which needs to be explained), then anyone could take a shot; no proposal could possibly be sillier than Dennett's, even though it was taken seriously by many (UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle is one exception, and has written one of the most astute criticisms of Dennett's silly ideas).

I read through dozens of books and articles over the next few years. Chalmers, Baars, McGinn, the Churchlands, Levine, Koch, Searle...I blew hundreds on Amazon. They were all interesting, but in the end, with one or two semi-exceptions, none of them really made sense. Here is why.

Remember that the question is: How can non-conscious matter give rise to consciousness?

Another way of putting this question is as follows:

How can a pile of rocks become conscious? After all, to hear all the consciousness researchers tell it, the brain was made up of matter no more conscious than rocks.

To me, early on, the answer was obvious...

But I am getting ahead of myself.

To be continued.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The One, True Bicycle


I hate bicycles. Not per se - I just hate all the designs now. Somehow, they just ain't...right.

Bikes all cost a fortune now, and have a million gears, and they have wires all over the place, and strangely-angled bars and freaky grips, and weird little tiny seats, and because there are so many parts, they're always breaking. Mountain bikes are fine for mountain biking, I admit; but what do you do if you just want a normal, straight-ahead bike?

Most people would say, "get a cruiser". Yes, they are somewhat close to a normal bike; the problem is that they are actually more like caricatures of a normal bike. They're usually painted some weird bright colour, often sport weird designs, they have overly large mud guards and handlebars, and a giant seat...So the whole cruiser package just screams, "Ooo, look at me, I'm doing the whole retro-cutesy thing! Woo-hoo! Here I am! Isn't this funny?!". For more modest cyclists, this just won't do. Moreover, if you buy one of those cruisers at Wal-Mart or K-Mart, they fall apart within weeks.

So what does the guy do - a guy like, say, me - who just wants a normal bike, nothing overstated, just a rock-solid, easy to use, durable bike? Well...what you do is, you look for a vintage Raleigh, and then, you get lucky.

That's what I did. I walked into the bike shop a couple of months ago to drop off, yet again, one of my kids's broken pieces of garbage, and...there it was...up on a display shelf about eight feet off the ground: a 1950's, single-speed, black Raleigh, made in England, with the original leather Brooks Brothers seat, in great condition.

Oh my God...! I was mesmerized. I felt like Jodie Foster at the end of Contact: "It's....so.....beau-ti-ful...."

I'd inquired in this shop before about buying display bikes, just in case one ever came in that I wanted. The answer had always been, "they're not for sale". So I wondered to myself what I could do to make this happen...

I actually couldn't think of anything other than to shift my question from, "Are those for sale?" to "How much for that Raleigh?". So that's what I did.

And, perhaps miraculously, it worked. The guy said, "Hm, I don't know. Let me go ask".

He came back a few minutes later and said, "They'd let it go for $200".

I couldn't believe it. Two hundred bucks is only a bit more than the locks cost these days.

"Can I see it?", I said.

The guy got it down. And then, if you can believe it, he said, "It's heavy" (duh). "I can get you into one of these Fishers here for around eighteen hundred bucks. These are awesome! They're made using a new composite blah blah blah...".

I looked at the bike he was describing. Absolutely ridiculous, I thought. No challenge. No character. No vibe. No mojo. Just a weird little piece of nothing, for some weird little dude wearing a weird little spandex butt-wrap and a weird little helmet to use for his weird little fitness cycling. And way too much money.

"This thing here", he said, pointing back at the Raleigh, "you know...it's, uh, it's old...you can get into something way better here...that Trek over there is on sale. It's only $3599 now...".

I didn't want to blow the deal by popping off, so I just asked if I could take the Raleigh out for a spin.

If you have never ridden a vintage Raleigh, it is hard to describe the feeling. For one thing, the front forks are positioned at a different, more out-front angle, than on bikes nowadays, so the steering, and the whole feel of the bike, are quite different. The weight of the bike (it's pure steel) seems to quickly give it a kind of momentum; and the relatively low height of the handlebars, combined with the seat, make it feel almost like you are reclining, though of course you are not.

And the brakes...they have no wires; they're all connected with rods of steel. Rad.

It took me four seconds out on the street, and I was sold.

"I'll take it", I said, coming back into the shop. The guy looked shocked. These punks have no clue, I thought.

I had them put a little leather pouch on the back of the seat, plus a trap, and a little back light; and now, riding this bad boy around Cadboro Bay has become one of the great little thrills of my life. We live close to a school, and the kids and I will sometimes just go ride around it just for the sheer joy of it, or ride down to Pepper's, the grocery store, or to the beach. It's just so much fun to ride, that it almost doesn't matter where we go...so often, we don't go anywhere in particular at all.

We just ride.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Response to Smile


In response to my last post, a reader named Smile writes:

"A blanket condemnation of young female sexuality followed by a recommendation of repression kind of bugs me".

I find this comment unfair and irritating. It exaggerates and distorts my comments, and includes what seems to be unthinking assent to the idea that any form of "repression" - whatever exactly is meant by that - is somehow wrong.

So, first things first. I did not offer a "blanket condemnation of young female sexuality". I expressed concern about something specific: the pornogrification, to coin a word, of young female sexuality. That's a big difference, and I do think it will be obvious to 99% of the people who read my post. To repeat, it is not human, or "young female" sexuality I object to, but to a social situation in which, at a formative time of life, a girl's primary sense of identity, purpose, and status derives from how outrageously she puts out. It's like living in a world created by Larry Flynt or a pimp, and it's bad - psychologically, emotionally, and physically - for boys and girls both.

Now, about your comments on "repression"...I am not sure how much I can say, because I am not exactly sure what you mean. This is a big, broad word which you have tossed out, which could refer to all sorts of things, some perfectly acceptable, others foolish, others dangerous.

For example, if one has the inclination to sexually molest children, then I see repression (either through willpower alone or with the aid of castration) as the only acceptable solution. Don't you? If so, then you agree with me that in some circumstances, sexual repression is a good thing, and could hardly condemn me for selectively supporting it. And certainly, there are all sorts of other cases where you would support repression of some kind. If a man is provoked by his girlfriend and wants to hit her, I assume you would encourage him to repress those violent urges. Likewise with dozens of different, destructive urges.

In fact, it is not too much to say that what we mean by the word civilization is no more than the taming, diversion or flat-out repression of certain instincts and desires which, if acted upon, would make society impossible, cruel, or dangerous. So I don't really know why this word should be thought to refer inherently to something bad.

You say my comments bug you. I say that what should bug you is a significant percentage of boys today growing up thinking of girls primarily as sperm receptacles. I think what should bug you is girls running around school dressed like prostitutes and competing with each other in what amounts to a "putting out" contest for the boys. I think what should bug you is citizens paying millions of dollars to support a public school system whose administrators lack the will and the legal or practical ability to enforce order, challenge students and hold them accountable, hire inspiring and purposeful teachers, fire lousy teachers, replace their boring curriculum, and build, deepen, and broaden students's character by inculcating ideals and habits like self-respect, self-discipline, and self-direction.

I mean, on this last point, I gave a guest speech to a high school in Oregon ten years ago, and the whole administration was absolutely petrified that I was going to talk about ethics and morals. Mentioning anything connected to a deity was obviously out of the question. The principal nervously made me promise ahead of time to steer clear of these topics. It was bizarre and chilling - literally like being in the Soviet Union in 1972 or something. I think that should bug you, too.

What should bug you is the equivalent of a million Jodie Fosters in "Taxi Driver", and all the confusion, sorrow, pregnancies, abortions, and everything else, that go with that...

To be continued, I'm sure.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Porn Generation


I have long felt disdainful of the enduring habit of nearly all Westerners, on the left and right, of viewing everything through the lens of impending apocalypse. For lefties these days, the world - at least humanity - is about to end in a flash of environmental meltdown and resource scarcity. For righties, especially of a religious bent, culture is always "slouching towards Gomorrah", getting more and more depraved and violent.

While both views contain elements of truth, both rely on simplifications and distortions of very select slices of reality. The world's food and water supply, for example, has never been as clean, safe, and bountiful. At least in America, mega churches continue to thrive, AM radio is saturated with Christian, social conservatism, and family-style entertainment options continue to be widely available.

But I think it is fair to say that in one respect at least, the righties might be on to something. From what I can tell, there seems to be a substantial segment of girls these days, from, say 16 to 26, whose biggest dream in life is to dress, talk, and behave like porn stars. Binge-drinking, wild forays into even the darkest regions of human sexuality, completely loutish behaviour...it has become "normal".

Not so long ago, most high school girls were quite conscious of maintaining their reputations for self-respect, and would feel a sense of mortification if it ever got out that they had "gone too far" with a boy. By contrast, many girls nowadays are keen to build up reputations for just how far they'll go. Sex acts which, literally, would have ruined a girl's high school social life not so long ago, now confer a kind of bizarre status on to her, and are often bragged about by the girls themselves. Forget second base - now it's...well, I won't say it.

I don't have any particular religious beliefs, but this all makes me feel nauseous. Human beings - including teenage girls - are, or certainly can be, multi-faceted. We are more than just sexual impulse, aren't we? And that so many girls seem to have wound up identifying themselves primarily via their ability to whip themselves up into a frenzy of orgiastic insanity so that lunkhead boys can get off on them, seems gross. Why sign up to be no more than a trashy, hyperactive inflatable doll, when you can be a beautiful, intelligent, self-respecting young woman? Somehow or other, Jenna Jameson - not Rosa Parks, or Florence Nightingale, or Uberfrau Ma Walton, or Amelia Earhart - seems to have become the great idol. Jenna Jameson, the porn star whose "achievements" boil down to only be able to do what any ape or dog can do - have sex - has obliterated them all. And yet we all look over at the Muslim lady in the supermarket wearing a veil and think, "The poor soul...brainwashed...what a pity". Yet I cannot see how obsessively trying to put more mileage on to yourself than the space shuttle, and walking around with your butt and thong and bellybutton and bra and boobs hanging out for all to see, and dishing out blow jobs in pub lavatories or school parking lots, is more praiseworthy than the choice of some devoted wife and mother to wear an outward symbol of her religious commitments. Something's gone really wacko here...

I have children in high school, and based on my own observation, I would bet a thousand bucks that most of the students are far more versed in every last aspect of sexual depravity than in Milton, Newton, or Mozart. Kids can go through an entire 12 years of public school these days without ever being forced to learn how to punctuate a sentence, spell correctly, or do rudimentary math. Yet they all emerge fully prepared to direct porno movies. What happened?

When I ask, what happened?, let me be more clear. What happened to self-respect? What happened to self-discipline? What happened to the ideal of education both deepening and broadening our souls? What happened to the moral centre of the education establishment? I don't get it.

In my perfect world, parents and schools would join together to inculcate habits of self-discipline and self-respect in the young. I would absolutely favour schools adopting dress and grooming standards for students (yes, uniforms), and holding children accountable at every stage for their academic performance. In designing curriculum, I would accept the fact that humans will always idolize someone or other, and see to it that those men and women truly worthy of emulation are held up as such.

I would also favour tying educators's salaries to their achievement, instituting vouchers so parents can choose between schools, and apportioning tax dollars for religious schools (as they do in Canada) providing they meet certain standards. And if some school wants to include corporal punishment for designated offences, and the parents are okay with that, then great. Better a smack on the butt than, say, a cuff on the wrist, or more to the point here, a bun in your girlfriend's oven.

Here I've mentioned only a feeling of nausea and disappointment about all this. I haven't mentioned the STDs, the heartbreak, the unwanted children, the abortions, all the practical reasons for trying to institute some sort of order in this area. But I guess that's a topic for another post.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Now this was a great day...


It is quite rare for me to have "great days" without the kids being involved - in fact I can't remember the last one - but today was one.

Early this morning, I flew from Grand Prairie, Alberta, where I played last night, home to Victoria. I was nervous the whole time because I had lost my keys. I'd ripped my bag apart, the guitar cases, and couldn't find them...and that meant I wouldn't be able to go to the rugby game this afternoon, where I might have a chance of playing (my kit would be locked in the van).

But I finally recalled, sitting in my plane seat, that the last time I had seen my keys, I had almost unthinkingly tossed them into a plastic bin to go through the X-ray machine on the way to Grand Prairie, so I spent all day hoping that when I returned to the Victoria Airport, someone would have found them and turned them in.

And...they had. Wow. Talk about elation. I said goodbye to T. and J. (bass player and drummer), jumped in the van, and headed to one of the most storied rugby pitches in Canada, the James Bay Athletic Association's pitch. I found K. and asked him how numbers were for the Third Division game.

"Low", he said.

Then D. walked past and said, "Where's your kit?". Then I saw C., and he said the same thing. So I thought I would throw my stuff on and play, even though I was pretty fried from the plane travel.

It was an absolutely perfect day, sunny and very warm. I don't know what the official temperature was, but it felt about 78 Farenheit there on the pitch. I played the first 55 minutes at left wing, was then subbed off for ten minutes, and then came on again for K.L. at right wing for the last few minutes.

With each game, I get a bit more comfortable, and a few new things happen. For example, I picked up a kick today and booted it back - first time I've ever attempted a kick. (The arc was low and it hit a big James Bay forward closing in on me square in the chest and bounced right up into the air). I was also in quite a few rucks, as there was lots of play on the perimeter, and got quite a few passes.

I didn't do anything spectacular, but also didn't do anything stupid (that I know of). At some point, I got knocked in the right knee and could barely walk back to the car (it has settled down now). Other than that, everything went okay, though we ended up losing by a hair.

M., the Fijian, had a very good game at fly-half today, with a few spectacular runs, a couple of which ended in tries. I notice he is always quick, and tricky with the ball, and very adventurous, but always seems composed. Actually, a lot of the fellas had very good games.

I came home and showered, and hung out with the kids. I told Sno-Cone and Trixta a Timmy story and a Pizza story, which they both seemed to love (I had them laughing pretty hard during the Pizza story - a little tale about Pizza burning down a restaurant by "accident"), gave Shortcake some medicine and tucked her in, chatted with A-Rock, E, and T-Bone (Tracy is staying here at the moment in a spare bedroom and watched the kids while I was gone).

After the kids were all in bed, Ashton said he would be in charge and I popped down to the rugby clubhouse. To my surprise, it was quite full. A few guys had guitars and everyone was singing. After a few minutes, knowing that I'm a musician, they all started chanting "Tal - Tal - Tal", so I finally obliged and played a few numbers. Actually, I ended up playing piano for about an hour, taking requests. We did "Hey Jude", "Let It Be", a bunch of Bob Marley songs ("Redemption Song", "Is This Love", etc.), "California Dreamin'", "My Girl", and, well, anything anyone suggested really. I actually felt quite shy at first, not being that talented at rugby, but it ended up being pretty hilarious. R. even ended up doing a solo dance while I played "Superstition", which had everyone laughing. He also attempted to sing "TNT" (with me on acoustic guitar), and he was so bad, it sounded instantly legendary.

Afterwards, I hung out and chatted with the two giant young twins from Ontario, L. and C., about football and hockey. I ended up telling them the story of me trying to sing the national anthem at an Islanders home game...I also chatted with T.C., the talented New Zealander outside-half for the Premier squad. The whole while, the lager flowed, and the Fijians did up a batch of kava, their homegrown root beverage which tasted a lot like muddy pond water...

All in all, this rugby thing has turned out to be quite the adventure, and I honestly think I might have gone insane due to all of the emotional turmoil caused by - well, you know, caused by "marital difficulties" - over the past year without it. Never having played a contact sport before (my last stint on any sort of team was when I was fourteen and played baseball), it has really been a challenge in all sorts of ways. But it has really, in a way, been life-changing.

So today was a great day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Überwindung

"I don't care who's on the other team", barked S, in his Australian accent. Twenty guys, including me, surrounded him in the locker room. "We gotta (expletive deleted) smash them, hammer them. I want to play on the Premier squad. We have to win this! LET'S (expletive deleted) SMASH THEM! Put your hands in - CW on three - one, two, three, CW!!!"

That was loud, I thought. And...uh...kind of violent. I don't think I belong here...

What was I doing there? It was a question I'd asked myself many times - like when I was at practice a couple of weeks before, and R., the coach, had told us to pick up the man next to us and run fifteen metres, then jump on his back while he carried us back, and then made us do it non-stop for four excruciating five minute segments. Or when, at the same practice, we had to do sequences of push-ups with our same partners lying on our backs. Holy Mother of Gawd what am I doing...?, I began thinking.

But there never really was a clear answer. My best guess was some unconscious, primal need for risk, challenge, danger...some need for overcoming (the Überwindung of Nietzsche). But again, it was a guess. The truth was that I was in the throes of another ultimately inexplicable obsession over which I seemed to have no control, and even though I often felt out of place, never having played rugby before, I couldn't stop.

Anyway, back to the locker room.

I walked out into the blazing sunlight - it was about 85 degrees Farenheit - all suited and taped up for a game which I now realized I had no business playing in. This was last Saturday.

See...A few days earlier, I had gotten an email from the team manager inviting me to come down to the club training and intra-squad game day. It sounded like a good way to get some more fitness in, and more importantly, to get some game time in a fairly friendly atmosphere. After all, it was just an intra-squad scrimmage, playing against all the guys I'd see around the clubhouse, or at touch.

So I showed up at 10:00 AM, and casually passed a ball around with a couple of guys. Then L., the coach, called everyone in, and explained that we were about to do two hours of intensive fitness testing so as to help the coaches evaluate who would play on the top team (the Premier team), and who would be relegated to the team below (the First Division). I didn't even start on the Third Division team last spring, and was nowhere near competing for a slot on even the First Division team, let alone the Premier team.

But I was standing there in my shorts and T-shirt, and I couldn't just leave without looking like a dweeb ten minutes after showing up. So...I decided to try to do all the fitness drills. They included things like sprinting five metres, dropping and doing two push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing four push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing eight push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing sixteen push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing two sit-ups, then four, then eight, etc., then a series of squats, etc., for twelve minutes. L. made sure to tell us, after twelve minutes of gasping and gagging, that the rugby league team he helped coach in Australia had been able to do that without any problems at all (thanks). We then moved on to a quick agility, passing, and defensive drill (three on two, then the two without the ball turn around and defend against the next three, etc.).

One of the drills I did step aside for, only because the other guys were familiar with it, and I wasn't, and it looked sort of confusing. By the time I'd figured out the choreography of it, L. had stopped it and we'd moved on.

In any case, we drilled for two hours and then ate lunch, with the recent Springboks versus All-Blacks game playing on the big screen while we ate. And then, around 2 PM, everyone started to get ready for the game.

Well...what I had thought was going to be a friendly intra-squad season-opening warm-up game, in fact turned out to be yet another assessment by the coaches: the Premier squad to play against arch-rivals James Bay next week would be selected based on game performance. So instead of a friendly game, it was an all-out war, the club split in half, each man fighting for a shot at glory, potentially a spot on the national team, and if that, potentially a pro career.

"Hey, uh, R.", I said. "I'm not sure I really belong in this game...I'm not competing for a spot on either team, and I don't really want to get killed". R. said he understood and that he wouldn't put me in.

I'll be honest - there is really no other way to describe what I felt other than fear. Never having played until recently, it still seems foreign...and I felt afraid I'd do something stupid. I felt afraid I might do something to lose the game. I felt afraid of being crushed by some jacked-up lunatic (some of the boys are over three hundred pounds, and some of them have played for the national team and are amazing players). Even deeper than that, I think, is still simply the idea of me, a lifelong musician, even playing the sport. It is just hard to get used to, in a strange sort of way.

But, I watched throughout the first half...and the more I watched, the more the obsession rose within me, until by half-time, I couldn't stop myself. For some reason, I had to.

"R. - I want to go in". What the hell, I rationalized to myself. You only live once.

R. looked surprised. "Okay man. Go in at right wing".

And that is how I wound up playing the whole second half in a game I had no business being in, in any way. And as it happened, it was a total blast.

Just a few seconds after the half started, a guy carrying the ball broke three tackles and hit the gap between myself and the outside-centre, slipping behind me. There was now only eight metres between him and the try line. I whirled around and gave chase, managing to catch his jersey with my finger; and if you can believe it, I managed to stop the guy with just my middle finger and thumb long enough to pull him down, and thus save the try. I then jumped up, got back onside, by which time one of my teammates had completed the tackle and was on top of him, and formed a ruck with a second teammate, driving over. In a flash, the opposing team flooded the ruck trying to drive over us toward our try line, which was only now two metres behind us. I pushed hard and hyperextended my left leg, and ended up buried beneath probably eight guys, all pushing forward and thrashing like spawning salmon.

A penalty was then called ("not releasing"), with a quick break in play, and I must say, it boosted my confidence to hear S., the Australian who had issued the violent speech in the locker room, call out, "Great tackle, Tal!".

As it happened, I was in some pain by that time, but I couldn't stomach coming off the pitch only a minute after I'd gone on. It would have looked completely pathetic. So I took a deep breath and vowed to stay on as long as I could. After a few minutes, my ligament settled down and I felt okay (the next day, Sunday, I could hardly move!).

I got a few carries, one of which brought me face to face with E., a gigantic Pacific Islander (yes, he tackled me). I offloaded and play continued.

I didn't do anything really great - no big hits or anything, no tries, with the try-saving tackle as the only thing approaching an actual contribution - but it was a great thrill to have overcome my initial reluctance, and just get on...There is really no feeling like being in the thick of things on the pitch, bodies flying everywhere, people shouting, giants charging at you, everything depending on split-second decision-making.

That night, we all met at the clubhouse to celebrate. I had a few nice chats with the guys, and also was met with the cry of "Buffalo!" on one occasion, which I was mystified by, until SA said that anyone caught holding his beer in his right hand would arouse such a cry, and the penalty was to drink the beer all at once. Since I'd had no idea, I requested a reprieve. But when I got caught a few minutes later again, I did the sporting thing and finished my beer off.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

War, Part II


"Okay, everyone loaded?", I said.

"Check", said T-Bone.

"Everyone put the anti-fog stuff on their mask?"

"Check".

"Everyone ready for action?"

"Check".

"Good", I said. "We'll make a plan once we get up there".

Ten minutes later, we were up on the first course. It was rough terrain: ravines, hills, lots of trees and fallen timber, shaped like an elongated-diamond, with a tower at each point. The objective was to capture the flag hanging from the enemy team's tower, before your enemy got yours.

The five of us, along with the other twenty or so guys on our team, crowded around our tower, waiting for the horn to sound. The five of us decided to head up the right side. The pressure - all of it self-imposed, of course - was huge. The world is depending on us. We have to get the flag.

The horn sounded and we ran as fast as we could up the heavily treed trail, down the ravine, to the halfway point, along the far right perimeter.

"Hold up", I shouted. We all hid behind trees for a minute to look for snipers. Nothing. Through the trees, we could see the rest of the paintballers 35 or 40 metres away converging on each other in the middle of the course. "Let's move up".

We began to leapfrog each other up the right perimeter, James and A-Rock sticking together in a pair, T-Bone, E, and I moving up about five metres from each other, hiding behind stumps, trees, and rocks. Within about eight minutes of the game starting, we had moved to within fifteen metres of the tower. Three or four of their soldiers were inside. T-Bone and I crouched behind a corrugated tin panel, E behind a tree, A-Rock and James behind a boulder. The tower guards spotted us and began firing out the windows. We tried to pick them off, but it was impossible.

There is a strange phenomenon which has happened to me now many times playing paintball, and which I might as well pause here to describe. The first couple of times it happened, I thought I was imagining things. But it has happened so often now, and has been so unfailingly reliable, that now I am not sure what to make of it at all. It is eerie.

When a game begins, there is an initial rush of adrenaline as you run to get into position. You don't know where your enemies are, or what their plans are, and often you don't even know what your teammates are going to do. So you run and try to get as far as you can, and then take cover, and try to get some idea of what is happening as you try to plan your next move. Often seeing what is happening is impossible. You get pinned down so you can't look around, or even if you can, you can't make out where anyone is. But something has happened to me now a bunch of times, as I really focus, and then focus harder, and then focus even harder: at some point in the battle, a sudden silence will descend upon my mind, so that I can no longer hear the shooting or shouts, or even my own thoughts anymore. It is just a sudden, pure, total silence, which comes unexpectedly, and then...

Some voice tells me exactly what to do. Like, "run behind the far left trees and then straight for the base. GO NOW", or "the last defender just left the tower while you were hiding; GO NOW".

I know it sounds crazy, but everytime I've heard it, I've immediately obeyed it, even when it seemed like the command was suicidal; and every time, I've gotten the flag (or otherwise achieved my objective, e.g., secure the tower).

So, back to the game. I was stuck behind the corrugated tin. There was no way to approach the tower; the people inside were still scanning and shooting at everything. I dashed five metres to my left and hid behind a boulder, got a peek, and saw the flag. It was fifteen metres away, and probably six feet out from the tower on a pole. E, A-Rock, T-Bone, James and I were all within five or six metres of each other, all trying to pick off the tower guards, with no progress being made.

And then it happened again; amidst all the shooting and shouting, suddenly everything went stone silent in my head, and the voice came back, the one I hadn't heard since the last time I went paintballing, and it said, "GO IN FIVE SECONDS: five, four, three, two, one, GO NOW AND KEEP SHOOTING". I obeyed it; I leaped out from behind the boulder; to my amazement, just as I emerged, the shooting from the tower lulled unexpectedly. My right hand veered out and I began spraying the tower (which was at about my 2:30) as I ran, leaping over the rocks and logs...and before I knew it, I had the flag.

The boys were thrilled. The Overlords still had Lord Wotan's magical mojo!

"We're going to dominate", said T-Bone. If it is not obvious, it is particularly important to T-Bone, player of many heroic military video games, that we do well in these games.

T-Bone was right. In every one of the first four games, even though there were almost fifty people playing, our small pod of elite commandos captured the flag. E and T-Bone got the next two, and I got the fourth. The referee - obviously not realizing that no matter he did, the Overlords would come out on top and save the universe - shifted the teams around to try to make us more even.

Not being informed of this, we were caught unaware during Game Five and our team lost.

"No excuses. Unacceptable" was our verdict. "Let them have as many as they want...it's like Agincourt! We must redouble our efforts, men!".

The Overlords charged out in Game Six, and once again, one of us (E) captured the flag. Game Seven was the same. We were on a course featuring four linked towers; in between each pair of towers hung the flag; the object was to capture the flag and touch it to the opponent's base camp. At the sound of the horn, I ran immediately up the ramp, through the first tower, through the second, and grabbed the flag; the enemy unleashed a volley, but none hit me. I got back to base and gave the bag to T-Bone. We then ran into the woods along the left perimeter along with eight or nine teammates, me covering him. And there, we all got pinned down. Our opponents captured the middle of the course, and then came up behind. Unfortunately, we couldn't run forward toward their camp because there were three guys there shooting back at us. One by one, our teammates were getting picked off, and we were getting squeezed. It is hard to describe the feeling of being behind a barricade with three other people, and then over the course of just a minute or two, they all get nailed...and most of the time, you can't even figure out where the paintballs came from.

T-Bone finally got hit. That left E, me, two girls, and as I found out later, A-Rock. The two girls got hit. Six or seven enemies were trying to come from behind; somehow Ashton managed to hold them off all by himself, about twenty feet behind us. I shouted at E to grab the backpack and get down. We were in deep trouble. Then E said, "I'm out of paintballs".

Oh no. We had to do something...we were getting bombarded and there were only three of us left, against at least fifteen of them. I peeked out and saw I had an open shot at someone in the fort underneath the tower. Two shots, direct hits, and he was down...and then, with only a minute or two to go in the game...it happened again.

The voice said, "RIGHT NOW is your only chance. The men just left the base. GO NOW".

It was hard to believe they had left the base - they had been there the whole game - but I jumped out anyway and yelled "RUN BEHIND ME" to E. Just to make sure, I pulled him as I ran past him. And eerie as it may sound, it happened again; just as we made our break, there was a sudden lull in the firing, as if all of our enemies had ducked down at the same time. That was fortunate, because we had to run half the length of the entire course to make it to base. And if you can believe it, after enduring all that bombardment for the previous thirteen minutes, we made it to base I think without a single shot being fired at us. We'd caught everyone unawares...and no one could believe we'd ended up winning that one.

The day ended around 4 PM. We had played ten games. Our teams won eight of the ten. In seven out of the eight, though there had been 45 or 50 guys playing, many of whom were competitive paintball players, it had been one of us who had won the game.

"Dad! We completely dominated!" said T-Bone, over and over again.

"We won almost every game", said E. "It's like we're magic!"

And the whole way home, we talked and recounted episodes from the battles, and gave ourselves permission to imagine that we really were elite soldiers of preternatural intuition, smarts, and courage, and that we really would have dominated in real battle a hundred, or a thousand, or seven thousand years ago. And I have to admit - it felt pretty good. The Overlords had saved the world again...

Monday, August 31, 2009

War


"Dad, wake up".

I jolted upright and glanced at the clock. 7:50 AM. My alarm hadn't gone off. What the...? T-Bone, my fourteen year old son, stood in front of me, wearing the genuine US Army camouflage jacket we'd picked from a buddy who frequents military supply auctions.

Twenty minutes later, T-Bone, E (just turned thirteen), A-Rock (sixteen), and A-Rock's buddy James (all decked out in camo) were in the van. Lots of excited chit-chat...but underneath it all, there was an undercurrent of tension. We were all thinking it (except James, not prone to Bachmanian flights of dramatic fancy)...it just hadn't been brought into the open yet.

We are elite. We are the Overlords. We have a reputation to defend. We have a war to win; and winning it is up to us, and only us. If we fail, our whole team fails. If we succeed, our whole team succeeds. It is break or be broken now...and we will break them.

By 9:15 AM, after a McDonald's breakfast, we'd arrived at TNT Paintball, a half hour outside of Victoria. I'd called ahead - a group of 40 kids and parents were coming, plus a couple of dozen more drop ins. We were the first ones there.

"This is good", I said, as we picked out a corner of the barracks. "It gives us time to get in the zone. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae the night before the final battle, when they were all washing up and polishing their armour, focused and calm".

"Hey Dad", E piped up. "Did you know there's no evidence that Ephialtes the herdsman actually betrayed the Spartans and showed the Persians where the mountain pass was, or that he even existed?"

Not again, not E and his weird tangents. "What do you want, a videotape?", I shot back. "It was two and half millenia ago, and the Greeks have been talking about it ever since. That's probably as much proof as you could hope for. Anyway, let's focus".

This was serious, after all. We had been three times before. And each time, we - the four or five of us - had completely dominated, even over the 20-something-year-old ringers who go all the time and have all their own gear. I had even called ahead to alert the ref that we all needed to be on the same team.

"We're an elite squad of commandos", I explained.

"Oh yeah?", said the guy.

"Yeah. We don't split up".

"Well, how many people in your party?"

"Five. Myself plus a thirteen, fourteen, and sixteen year old. And my sixteen year old's buddy", I said.

"Gotcha". He sounded like he was about to laugh. Laugh at the Overlords? We were superheroes about to save the freaking universe! "Well, sure you can be on the same team", he said.

(More to come).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ghosts of an Ancient Past


I'll be honest - I want to meet my ancestors.

I wonder who they were, what they looked like, how they lived, and what physical or personality traits (due to genetics, that is) we share.

And it is a funny thing...in addition to German, I have Scottish and Ukrainian ancestry, but I feel no affinity with those lines. Like, nothing. I feel as "Ukrainian" as I do Aztec, as Scottish as I do Maori. There is just nothing there, even when I try to make myself feel some resonance...

For some reason, I only feel German, and only ever have. Maybe it is because my grandpa - whose parents immigrated to Canada from the Magdeburg area - was a practical, sensible man; the world seemed to make sense when he would talk. But I have no clue.

What I do know is that - I don't know how to explain this exactly - I feel like I have glimpses inside of me, and they all seem to be set in northern Europe. They include fires at night, chilly temperatures, a certain kind of piny, smoky scent in the cool air, northern skies and constellations, Germanic sounding words, beautiful long songs, and stories, and hard decisions, and furs, and forests which look just like those I've seen in that part of the world...and the glimpses seem to come from a long, long time ago.

One part of the emotional content of those glimpses is the feeling that the world makes sense. For a fleeting moment, I can see and smell and feel something...feel that I loved and was loved; protected and was protected; respected, and was respected back; and the animals and forests and stars, and my people, all fit together. I understand it all...

Another part is a feeling of vigilance, a kind of enervating fear if you like - of predators, human or animals, who might harm those I am responsible for protecting. Another part is some sense of heroism or glory...And I have a woman, a wife, who is all mine, and I'd give my life for her...and we have children.

Do I sound mad? I am not worried if I do, for I feel that I have no control over those glimpses. They are just part of who I am, and who I have always been, and I cannot make them go away. So mad or not, it doesn't matter.

The truth is...I don't know what to make of these glimpses. They seem real, but I suppose, cannot be...They come to me far more often than I would ever wish to admit to; and the truth is, if I could, I would go to that place, and stay there. But I can't.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vanity and Morality, Part One

It is easy, in the comfort of our own living rooms, to imagine ourselves to be of incorruptible integrity. We would never take a bribe to allow something illegal or evil to occur. We would never stab a friend in the back for our own gain. We would never lie or cheat or steal, maim or kill. We would never take money to injure someone, or work as prostitutes, or allow someone "to treat us that way".

The truth is that we are very fortunate to be able to indulge in such flattering delusions. Most of us live in rich, stable democracies, where we take the rule of law for granted. For us, "hunger" is when we decide to go on our trendy "cleansing fast" for a day, which we then proudly tell everyone about, rather than the involuntary, prolonged, health-destroying agony that it is for millions of others. Many of us are treated pretty fairly at work, and receive fair compensation for our labour. The desperate situations that so many of our fellow human beings have existed in are almost unimaginable to us.

Put us in those dire, desperate circumstances...massively circumscribe our choices... inflict pain on us, or on those we love...and what would we do? Use your imagination, and you will find that there are actually very few "bad things" that you would not do, given certain variables. In fact, you will even find that in extreme situations, many of those bad things begin to appear very much like good things.

Say your child is kidnapped. You live in an area of the world where the police are corrupt and will not help you. You and your friends then are able to capture the kidnapper, who will not tell you where he is keeping your child. Each hour he does not tell, is another hour in which your child may suffer or perish - from hunger, from an assault by others, etc. What do you?

You - to use the technically precise term - torture. You tie him up, beat him, put a Bic lighter to his arm, break his kneecaps, waterboard him. Whatever. You do what it takes to save your child.

In that situation, your choices were radically circumscribed. The kidnapper would not reveal the whereabouts of your child without being tortured. So, the result of refusing to torture the kidnapper would be that you allow your child to be tortured and probably murdered. The result of torturing the kidnapper is that you protect your child from torture and probable murder. Either way, you are at least facilitating torture. So your choice boils down to, which one of these two people gets tortured?

It is remarkable that there are people out there so detached from reality, that they would listen to this little hypothetical and say something like: "The ends don't justify the means" (which certainly in this case qualifies as a thought-terminating cliche); or "There would have to be a better way than torture...".

No, in fact, sometimes, there are no better ways. That's the point. You live in Vermont or Queensland, not in a village in Africa where your child actually was kidnapped by some warlord's henchman. What if you did?

Once we get going, it becomes easy to imagine situations in which we would steal food, push people off bridges, lie, bribe, take bribes, prostitute ourselves, all sorts of rotten things.

Here's another example. You're a cop in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Your annual salary is $1500 (that is actually the average annual wage for a Mexican policeman). One day, a representative from a notorious drug gang contacts you. He tells you that he will pay you $10,000 a year if you simply turn a blind eye to what happens at a certain cantina. If you refuse to cooperate, you will be murdered. You have a wife and kids at home. You want to live. You're also getting a pittance, risking your life trying to enforce the law, when you know that the same drug lords have high-ranking politicians all through the government, and other cops, on their payroll, too. In short, there is nothing, on your own, that you can do to stop the drug gang. You don't know if your own police chief is also on the take; if you report this to him, who knows if he won't tell the gangmembers, and they'll kill you?

In this case, which is the real-life choice faced by quite a number of Mexican cops right now, what choice do you have? And what do you say if your contact one day says to you, "I need you to take this bag to la farmacia and give it to 'Roberto'"? Do you say no?

Say no, and you die, only to be replaced by someone who will say yes anyway.

Say yes, and you survive, and are able to buy your wife pretty things, and give your children more opportunities. Say yes, and you can at least try to compensate for your own corruption by doing good in other ways. Say yes, and rise through the ranks...maybe one day you'll have the power to stop the very sort of corruption which you've been involved in. Say yes, and maybe you can save up and move to America, where such corruption is rarer. But if you say yes, you're a bribe-taker, a drug runner, and you are now protecting an organization which tortures and murders people.

Your conscience says, "If all of us stood up and said 'no' to these thugs, we could defeat them". The problem is that you live in a real world, and that will not happen. There's no way to make it happen. It is just not going to happen. In this real-life situation, the cost of idealism is death.

What do you do?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Glimpse of Heaven


Last Sunday, I got a glimpse of heaven.

I got up early and fixed up all the family bikes - filled up tires, tightened brakes, replaced chains, etc. - and then my youngest six kids and I rode from Cadboro Bay, where we live, over to Oak Bay (the next bay down). It was really something to see them all lined up riding down the road, especially little four-year-old Trixta (hip-hop name) riding his little bike, his legs pumping furiously since his wheels are only like twelve inches in diameter.

We first rode down to Cadboro Bay Village and then made it up the hilly Cadboro Bay Road, crossing over on to Beach Drive through the large "Uplands" pillars. Uplands is a beautiful neighbourhood, full of big houses and manicured, landscaped lawns, and is on a small bluff overlooking the ocean (and at one point, the Oak Bay Yacht Club). Even our one mishap turned out great - T-Bone got a flat tire, and I had to call Spoiler (my brother) to come help us. We threw a rugby ball around on a small piece of grass bordering the sidewalk as we waited. Spoiler finally showed up in his big old GMC pick-up - a bizarre site in that neighbourhood - and proceeded to drive right over the curb and sidewalk toward us. We attached the aerosol tire-filler thing he brought to T-Bone's wheel, but to no avail - we finally just threw his bike in the back of the pick-up, and the other kids and I continued riding, and met up with Spoiler and T-Bone at Willows Beach. After a game of touch rugby on the grass, we all slipped down to the beach and had a rock throwing contest, and then headed up to Willows Galley, the local fish and chip shop.

Of course, my two oldest sons weren't there; they're off now with friends and girlfriends most of the time. It would have been fun if they had been, but then, they are all but out of the nest now. What I did regret was that Mommy wasn't there...but I guess a discussion of that is beyond the scope of this entry.

It has been a long time since I saw the kids as happy as I saw them on our ride. I guess it was something about all being together, and all experiencing so much pleasant sensory input: the big blue sunny sky, the popping flowers all around, the smell of the ocean and trees and blooms, the feeling of freedom on the bikes, the thrill of novelty (since we had never taken this trip before), the feeling of satisfaction at being able to overcome a challenge, the delicious fish and chips at Willows Galley...the whole experience, simple as it was, made a deep impression, and the kids have been talking about it for the last week.

In life, it is the simple pleasures which count. Being with those you care about, and who care about you, communicating with them, laughing with them, experiencing the world and each other in new ways...those are the moments which remain with me always...those are the moments I cherish most.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why Does Leonardo DiCaprio Keep Getting the Shaft?


I'm preaching the Hollywood gospel here. Today's topic is Hollywood leading men.
Tom Cruise is a bizarre, control-freak twerp. Nicolas Cage is an embarrassment. Ben Affleck has poisoned his career by becoming a disgusting tabloid figure. Matt Damon has played his cards right and been in some great movies, but has been rewarded by the Oscar committee. What I don't get is, why hasn't Leonardo DiCaprio gotten an Oscar yet?

Leonardo DiCaprio, with the possible exception of his role in the saccharine monument to James Cameron's vanity that is "Titanic", has been great in everything. He was great in "Gilbert Grape", great in "The Departed", great in "Catch Me If You Can", great in "The Blood Diamond"....he's always great. Where is his Oscar?

DiCaprio's performances have been all the more remarkable for their range; yet for some reason...he's not getting the love from the establishment.

What's up with that?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Estranged


I've been waiting for something to strike me here for a couple of weeks, and nothing has. I don't know what to write about anymore.

I did have a rugby game today - a playoff game in fact, against Velox at Windsor Park in Oak Bay. But as a newbie, I only played a few minutes. No carries, one tackle. I hung out at the Castaway Wanderers clubhouse this evening, chatting - that was fun.

But overall, I don't know what to say anymore, and even though I feel that familiar awe as the earth comes back to life, and am having a great time with rugby, I feel a sort of emptiness inside, and it never quite goes away.

Perhaps seeking out religion is one way of coping with that for some people; but then, I always felt that emptiness as a devout religionist, too. Maybe it is something about me, some flaw which can never really be repaired.

I feel - and have felt for a very long time - as though there is a part of me which isn't really here, or doesn't really belong here (here being, wherever I am). And I drive around sometimes, like I used to do in White Rock, where I went to high school, realizing that while everything around seems familiar, everything feels foreign, too, in some way I can't describe. But I can never figure out why, and I never hear anyone else say such things, and I don't know what to make of it. It is as though I am always outside myself.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The E Update







Long-time blog readers will know that my 12 year old son, nicknamed "E" (also known as Skinny Dip) switched from soccer to rugby last summer. I was disappointed at the time - we had put a lot of time and effort into helping him pursue his soccer dreams - but things are going very well. And in fact, I've found his efforts pretty inspirational.

You see, E is the youngest, shortest, and skinniest boy on his team - and probably in the entire league - and yet seems entirely unaffected by this. Putting it another way, playing rugby is like running around in the middle of a wildebeest stampede knowing that you will be trampled; it can be intimidating, even when you're the same size as the wildebeests. But what about when they're twice as big? (Compare his size to that of others especially in the top right photo here). Despite the massive size difference, E - in other ways, an extremely high-strung and at times fearful boy - plays rugby with the cool, determined confidence of a boy twice his size.

And it wasn't that long ago that I stood watching him grab the ball and start running, and then being piled on in the ruck, that I thought, "If he can do it, I can do it". And the next week, I did.

So, good on you, E. Ten points for bravery!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Live from Powell River


I was falling...blissful sleep dangled before my closed eyes...and it kept happening. I had my ear plugs in, but I could hear a faint murmur from the back of the bus; and then, about every fifty or so seconds, the murmur would explode:

"PWAAA-HA-HA-HA-HARR-HARR-OOOO-YEAH!-HAHAHA-ARRR-(COUGH)-HAAA". And I'd wake up again.

It sounded like I was on a 17th century pirate ship. In fact, I was on the bus traveling up to Powell River, BC, to play in my second ever rugby game.

Powell River is a long way - a five hour trip each way. No wonder numbers were low. Only fourteen guys showed up, and of those, five or six were Premier League players. That's the top rugby league in town. They'd been called in to help out; the Castaway Wanderers Third Division team is brand new, after all. I suppose it will take a bit of time for things to establish themselves, including consistent attendance.

Anyway, I did finally doze off. Which was good, since I'd only gotten to bed around 2:30 the night before, and I had to wake up at 6 to catch the team bus. While I was awake, I ended up chatting with Alex - a studious chap for a rugby player - about artificial intelligence and the possibility of machine consciousness, and also with a few other guys.

Fortunately, Powell River agreed to play us fourteen on fourteen. I was at right wing again, and was fortunate to get a lot more carries than in my first game. I didn't score, but I'm getting the hang of things, and that's exciting. In fact, in the Powell River game, it felt like I was playing in an actual rugby game, rather than it feeling like I had just dropped acid and was on some sort of surreal slow-motion trip, which is how I felt in my first game. So, that was good, and once again, all the guys helped out.

Unfortunately, we lost the game due to a young Powell River player, a Fijian, who was able to break through the line and score, I think, four tries. Pity.

But...the frustration didn't last long. We got back to the clubhouse, showered, dressed, and then were treated to a great dinner by Powell River, replete with a drinking contest between four of the players, a few jolly speeches, and a lot of laughs. One thing that got a lot of laughs was this. Someone said to me, "Hey - didn't you win a Juno?".

"Yeah, two actually", I mumbled.

"You seem pretty casual about that", the guy said.

And I was totally serious when I replied, "I'd be a lot more excited if I scored a couple of tries".

For whatever reason, the entire table erupted in laughter, and the little exchange was repeated a few times on the bus home for the benefit of those who hadn't heard it. I can't explain why, but I really would be a lot more excited to score a couple of tries...!

Ah, the ride home. That was something.

You see, someone ran to the liquor store and bought an entire crate of beer as we were in line for the ferry...and, well, long story short is, the ride home made the ride there seem like a prayer meeting. Things got louder and louder, more and more raucous and frenzied, and for the last two hours, I played guitar while a bunch of the boys sang as loudly as they could: Beatles songs, Tom Petty songs, Stone Temple Pilots songs, Chili Peppers songs, Neil Young songs, dozens and dozens of songs.

Playing rugby seems to the closest thing readily available to actually joining the army and getting shot at together (always a bonding experience). Quite the experience so far.

Just keeping a log of my rugby games,

T.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seals, Fish, Cows - What's the Difference?


The seal hunt started today, and all the usual people have started their annual freakout. The European Union, for example, is up in arms about the seal hunt and wants to shut it down permanently. It is now reportedly considering banning the sale of seal products in protest.

Young seals are killed traditionally by the Inuit peoples of the arctic with a single whack to the head - the same way that fishermen usually kill fish. A single gunshot is now the mode of choice for seals. Either way, what is more "brutal" about a whack or a bullet, than about the mode of slaughter in your local slaughterhouse - the place where they slash the throats out of dozens of cows a day? If anything, the seal hunt is far more humane.

For the EU to be consistent, it needs to ban all meat-eating. Yet the French are still eating foie gras, the Belgians are still eating frog legs, and the Germans are still eating sausage. How does that make sense? How do EU bureaucrats think that the ducks, frogs, and pigs they eat get from the state of being alive, to the state of being dead, except via being killed? It's bizarre. The guys at the EU are probably eating chicken for dinner right now, with no sense of hypocrisy at all.

As if that wasn't enough, amigos, the EU is the same organization which has continued to allow BULLFIGHTING in Spain! Why, how could they ever ban bullfighting, when it's part of Spain's "cultural heritage"? Yet the fact that the seal hunt has been a primary pillar of Inuit culture in Canada for tens of thousands of years, and maritime culture for hundreds, means nothing to these pampered snobs. It doesn't matter even that the Inuit literally utilize every part of the seal it is possible to utilize: bones, fat, eyes, meat, organs, everything, or that the maritimers also try to sell as much of the seal as possible. It also doesn't matter to the protesters that the seal population, if left unchecked, would decimate fish stocks, and then probably start dying of starvation. No - all that matters is that young seals are cuter than fat old bulls, sheep, ducks, turkeys, geese, frogs, snails, cows, goats, salmon, cod, herring, and every other living creature that EU bureaucrats, and 90% of the rest of the protesters, eat.

Killing a seal for food is no different in principle than killing a duck, deer, or moose for food. Unless the activists are also calling for a total ban on carnivorousness, their position is incoherent.

And if they are calling for the end of carnivorousness...well, that is a subject for another blog entry.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Special Olympics Bowling


So Barack Obama is getting crucified today because the other night on the Jay Leno Show, he said, in referring to his inability to bowl, that it was "like Special Olympics or something".

I don't understand the world anymore. It's like the most popular pastime out there is waiting around trying to see or hear something to get offended by, after which the challenge is to make the biggest fuss possible about the offense. And if you can somehow launch a lawsuit over your wounded feelings, even better. Meanwhile, the offender has to grovel and bootlick until the offended party announces that enough is enough. It's like some weird perverted master-slave ritual which people now participate in, unquestioningly, instantly.

One of the all-time classic idiotic examples of this came a few years ago, when a (white) comptroller for the city of Washington, D.C. used the adjective "niggardly", and was forced to resign his job because of the word's similarity to the "n word". That "niggardly" is an ancient word, probably of Old Norse origin, which has no relationship whatsoever to the corrupted Spanish word for black ("negro") which is the "n word", was too complicated a fact for many of the offended to understand.

Anyway, I don't know why the Special Olympics people had to freak out over a stupid joke. If I were the president of that organization, I think I would have said, in the best of humour, "President Obama has thrown the gauntlet down, so I want to formally invite him to stand up to his challenge, and to compete in a charity bowling tournament against some of our Special athletes. President Obama, you name the day!". And Obama couldn't refuse without looking like a total dweeb. And that way, the organization gets tons of publicity, MONEY, public support, and they don't look like just another pack of whiners waiting around to feel offended.

Just my two cents,

Tal