Thursday, January 31, 2013

Grab A Chair And I'll Put The Kettle On

This is the time of the year when I'm most at a loss for the company of old friends. It's so easy to let time drift us away from one another until one would be forgiven for wondering if you'd ever been close at all. But as much as good friends are ones who can sit comfortably in a room with nothing at all to say, they are also those who can get back together after years and years and sit down like it was just yesterday when you last got together.

The kitchen table was the gathering spot: a destination unto itself. No fancy parlors for us. And no real agendas; although financial reports, the status of initiatives and informal feedback were often part of the proceedings. And personal status was shed with coats and boots at the door. Everyone had an equal say and the right to laugh. These were gabby times of philosophy, plans, ideas, sports scores, the never neglected weather reports and the idlest of who-did-what-to-who and what-they-did-back chatter.

It was common courtesy to save the chair at the table that was closest to the "golden triangle" of fridge/stove/sink for the host; to allow them to move freely to fetch for their guests. Or to putter without tripping over others while you gabbed, with the open chair always at the ready to sit a spell between duties.

And being at a table in a kitchen also meant there was always the calming potential of food close by even if you weren't there to eat. Maybe it was the lingering odor of the Campbell's cream of tomato soup left over from lunch or there was dinner cooking and we all got to watch and enjoy the heady aromas drifting from the oven or the pot: a gift in itself. And once you'd sat in a friend's kitchen a few times you got to know where things were kept. Just the thought of knowing their saltines were kept in the cupboard above the fridge in case you wanted one or two was a source of comfort because you knew if you wanted one all you had to do was ask. And the ready answer was always "Sure!"

And then you could say, "It's okay, I'll get them myself." 

It was almost better if you weren't there for a meal because meals meant they had an end and then it was over and you were supposed to get up from the table. When you were just there sitting around the table there was no formal end. And no dishes to offer to help wash up. If coffee cups and glasses were all that were involved all courtesy demanded was just to place them in the sink when it was time to go. And time to go was flexible. Time hung on a "gotta go" or a "freshen up your cup?"

I can remember many kitchen table talks. Different kitchens and friends of various ages in an assortment towns and cities; we were the kitchen table people. Put the coffee on or fire up the kettle or, especially on hot summer days, pop the cap off a nice cold one or two. Ashtrays and splatters of milk and bottle caps and spoons surrounded by sugar galaxies adorned the tabletop with pets at your feet, top hits from the am/fm radio on the counter and sometimes kids running in and out of the room marking ends to various excursions and the start of new adventures. New folks popped their heads in the back door at times with a smile and a "Hi-how-are-ya" and joined the clutch to add fresh fodder to the proceedings. Often chairs had to be found from other rooms and dragged in to allow seats to be properly parked. And spur-of-the-moment talk fests ensued. Conversations that, on a cold winter day, visit me in remembered expressions, gales of laughter, pep talks, and the occasional tear – always surrounded with warm smiles and better tomorrows to come.

Anyway, there's no point to today's post. Those who have sat around a kitchen table with me will know there doesn't have to be one.

Just shooting the breeze.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Plus ça change

“The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” ~ Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice was released this week in 1813. Two hundred years ago. A drop in the bucket when you look at the age of the cosmos, but to you and me it's easily three or four lifetimes. Or five or six less fortunate ones. Life in that two hundred years has changed quite a bit. Technology has enhanced our health, our communications and our efficiency. Some would say we're doing well. That we're making 'strides'. But it appears the basic state of humanity has remained unchanged, regardless of the wisdom shared from a multitude of sources over the years.

Two hundred years ago, when Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, the cultural movement called the Age of Enlightenment was just waning. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge by promoting science, skepticism and intellectual interchange. It was sparked by folks like physician John Locke, physicist Isaac Newton, and philosopher Voltaire. But by 1813 these new perspectives on nature and man's place within it were losing ground. Emphasis on reason was giving way to Romanticism's emphasis on emotion. And emotion, it seems, is exactly what the powerful needed for their purposes. Today, evidently, it is this still the act of playing on emotions that allows a few to rule while the general population believes it has a say in how they are governed. Some would say society really functions not by duly elected governments but by the rule of money lords and special interest groups. They would say that we are governed under tables that upon which we are tantalized with emotional red herrings: talk show hosts gaining notoriety by giving respectability to liars and cheats, snappy new apps that make life zippier, fear being spouted in short sound bites meant to enrage the uninformed and keep them in ignorance, and attentions drawn to trivial game shows, quicky payday loans, new treatments for bad breath and astounding antics delivered via reality television.

Because the evil masses have to be kept occupied, you see.

Modern society continues to send men off to be killed in the name of words like "honor", "justice" and "freedom" all for the control of things like resources that other nations want from them. And when they fall in the line of duty grieving families without fathers, brothers, sons and daughters are told they died as heroes to the cause. And, as is the case in Canada, when more soldiers die at their own hands after returning to society with PTSD than were killed in combat, why, that's a shame but let's just not talk about it for the sake of the families. We could easily feed all the people in the world but we continue to turn farmland into strip malls and light industrial complexes. In some places modern society still condones the taking of a life. Scientific research is sponsored by political and commercial interests spinning results tailored to conveniently fit purposes. We fight bullying with bullying disguised as reason and diplomacy instead of compassion and a good look at ourselves. We allow the possibility of assault weapons made for battlegrounds to be placed in the hands of the unstable and resist background checks and bans on the grounds of rights that were written during the time of muskets. We still take delight at figuratively burning people at the stake. Because rule by coercion, intimidation, fear and force is all "these people understand."

But all is not for the powerful. We, the minions, are given miracle cures, gurus spouting panaceas, experts telling us how to improve, how our dishes can come out of the dishwasher spotless, what rules to follow and in what order. What to drive in order to save the planet and still be cool. We're told what we should be worried about. How to get more social media followers. What we should be wearing. Whether our countertops should be granite or marble. All to keep us busy and on a direct route to happiness and self-fulfillment.

Individuals continue to be judged by their beauty, their wealth or the quality of their scoundrelousness rather than the substance of their thoughts and selfless deeds. We are told of the virtues of living with grace, about the value of our heart and love, about the special nature of our soul and how little money really means. More and more the news that is delivered to us is based on whether it will attract the most revenue rather than its intrinsic value. Morning newsreaders are now television personalities that report on news for three minutes and then entertain for the balance of the hour because people have to be "engaged" and because ratings mean revenue. Reporters have to put their pieces through the filter; making sure they're not stepping on the toes of advertisers/corporate owners or offending the politically correct.

We're suckers for all this, in a way. We're supposed to share and support and speak the truth as they take and subvert and shower us with cleverly disguised misinformation. If we complain they say, "Don't be so shallow, think of the war/recession/terrorists/assault weapon crisis/child labour/welfare bums/labor strikes/interest rates/global warming/jobs we're losing to China" when they may be the very people that allowed/caused the calamities in the first place. They perch so much of their considerable weight on our concern and good will, is it no wonder that so often it becomes buried in distrust and disillusionment?

Who are "they" you ask? They are us. Just people. Fallible.


Deep down we are still the animals we profess to be better than. We scrap at the watering hole of resources, fame, riches, importance, dominance and self-centered gain. It is in our basic nature to compete, to win and to survive at all costs, even if it is on the backs of others – losers all. It is not our fault we conquer. It is their fault they are weak. We profess to be something more than beasts while we tear into those who would threaten us.

If it were not so, surely the last two hundred years would have seen more progress in a humanity that is more humane. Maybe we're ready for a new Age of Enlightenment.

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." ("The more things change, the more they remain the same.") ~ Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes 1849.

Off my soap box. Sorry for the long rant. I feel better now.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Just Sayin' – Hopefully In The Right Way

Whether you're a kid posting a message to friends on Facebook or a large organization posting to the web; you gotta be careful about how you say things. Because people can take offense. Not only that, but these days with interactive media, they can let you know in no uncertain terms. Very quickly.

An incident this past week hammered this home. An advertiser released a commercial that they obviously thought edgy and humorous. One that portrayed a gentleman's anxiety that prevented him from leading a full life. It showed him unable to function, unable to eat, sitting forlornly in a chair in a backyard. The 'cure' was the company's product.

They launched the commercial on national television, posted it on YouTube, announced it on their Facebook home page and their web site and had it covered by the national trade magazine. The CEO and VP tweeted its launch. No doubt they were proud of their campaign. But it came off as though they were belittling people's health conditions in order to sell their wares. And overnight they became "the company that makes fun of sick people."

The condemnations poured in. Comments were posted on all social media sites that mentioned the campaign. People were livid. Multiple "it wasn't our intention" replies were sent out. A few days later, officials of major health associations posted their concern and the next morning the company finally announced they were pulling the ads. Major newspapers covered the scrubbing of the commercial. In the end, an expensive lesson learned and people will remember this company for a long, long time for all the wrong reasons.

It's a big world out there and there are some advertisers who are willing to push the envelope of good taste in order to cut through the clutter. Most ad creatives know that making fun of a minority, religion, race etc. and doing things like depicting women as sex objects is a way of getting attention akin to pulling down your pants in public and expecting people to still respect you – let alone want to hang out and do business with you.

The danger is that humor in advertising, because of those who have used it poorly, will become something people will shy away from. In fact, humor is a very effective tool for capturing people's attention so long as you're not belittling others. Inviting someone to laugh with you is totally different than laughing at someone's expense.

When properly used, humor is friendly, positively engaging and begins a relationship with a smile on everyone's face.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Some People Have Epiphanies - Some Go Boom

"Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world." ~ John Milton

A typical lightning bolt contains a billion volts and contains a current of between 10,000 to 200,000 amperes. That's about enough energy to light a 100 watt light bulb (of the old variety) for 3 months. I know this, not because I'm a brainiac, but because I looked it up.

And when a person such as I, who rarely thinks they can learn anything new, gets a sudden understanding about something, it's so unexpected it hits like lightening. Some have epiphanies. I go "BOOM" – there goes the brain. I estimate the one I had this week is probably worth about 8 months of energy because I'm a low-light 40 watt guy. Age makes one appreciate energy savings more effectively than any conservation, green-earth pleas. Got an energy crisis? Give everyone ugliness. They'll turn off lights like crazy. But I digress.

Epiphany (from the ancient Greek epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is an enlightening realization that allows a situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Sounds pretty poetic... romantic, like a candle lit in a dark room. Often they are triggered by a new piece of information, which when added to prior knowledge allows a leap of understanding. Like Archimedes's discovery of a method to determine the density of an object and Newton's falling apple thing. I didn't shout "Eureka!" or "Hey!" or anything like that. I'm much more of a "WHATTHEHELLWASTHAT?" man. Because I don't tend to have candles lit in dark rooms. I get thermonuclear-grade bad hair days.

So I'm not going to tell you what led up to my big boom. It's not important. What's important is that I had one. And because it takes me a while to recover I only allow myself one per year. So I've had mine for this year. And I won't get another until 2014 now. So check back then.

Or just watch for the mushroom cloud on the horizon.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Do Words Do?

"The substance of a thought is the peace it brings"
What the heck are words? (I'll bet you were asking yourself this very question.) We don't talk a lot about words themselves. Discussing words is sort of weird because you have to use words to do so. And some of them might not want to snitch on their own kind. Plus some words have singular meanings while others have multiple meanings depending on context; and the first group might get jealous.

So let's not talk about words except to say they're made with letters and we put them together with other words in order to communicate with our fellow humans (and dogs, cats and the occasional goldfish). Suffice to say their effectiveness depends on whether others are paying attention. But without words we'd all be doing charades all day to pass messages between each other. While that would be fun at first (and would make political debates downright entertaining), it's not the most efficient way of conversing. So that's words. Done. Good. (phew)

Now we can talk about what words do. Some might just say they're a link between comprehension and action. They prompt understanding and allow appropriate responses. While one word can be an understandable message, more words add clarity and too many words can just be confusing. And they can have funny effects. Words can either make you want to climb walls or make you so comfortable you just want to cuddle.

So about today's visual. I wrote those words on a scrap piece of paper when I was in my twenties. This was before most of my adult life when I was still something of a dreamer. I didn't mean to keep it. It just stuck around. And over the years I'd stumble across it now and then.

I don't remember who authored it. It was so long ago. Maybe I did (pick this one if you like it) and maybe it was someone else (definitely pick this if you don't like it).

Not being a real 'new age' person (no mantra here), I don't have many words that I say to myself that would bring me peace. I guess I'm more prone to words that prompt my "flight or flee" mechanisms. But I've learned that words from other people can help you relax. Some have done just that for me. I'll leave you today with a few favs from over the years:
  • "Your account has been credited with the amount wrongly debited." This is a huge relief to hear. Sometimes they even add neat advice, like "From now on you might refrain from investing in fake shrimp farms."
  • "Hey, you're not as ugly as I thought you'd be!" If this is not followed by the words, "You're worse!" this is very calming
  • "There's no need to blue-rinse your hair to appear distinguished." Self-help books about aging gracefully are great, aren't they? I'm thinking I this should be my next project
  • "The test results are negative." This only works if you're not part of a couple who are trying to get pregnant
  • "Just kidding..." Hearing these words usually follows a period of high anxiety induced by a jokester. Smile and activate your "flee mechanism" as soon as is appropriate
  • "The reference between you and hamsters wrapped in hockey tape has been deleted." Let me just say that sometimes the humor that goes around a creative studio can get quite weird
  • "You may eat with your hands." This was great to hear when I was a kid. It released the animal in me (without being sent to the corner), and finally
  • "I keep your book in the bathroom and read it all the time." While this is very nice to hear but sometimes I have a hard time with the picture that puts in my head.
Have a great week everyone!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Free Cat Food And Other Tasty Merits

I got this badge when I was about eleven. I can't remember what it was for but I suspect it was when I single-handedly stormed the beaches of Normandy.

I swear if there is a greater word in the English language than the word "merit" I don't know what it is. Just the sound of it and you think of other great words like: rewards, prizes, kudos, money, advantages, beer, recognition, privilege, honor, pizza, beer, candy, gold stars, fame – a life suddenly made better than what it was before.

Like, open the door and let me on this ride, right?

We merit free cat food when we buy ten 20 lb. bags of cat food at the local cat food store, even if we don't own a cat, and merit points when we use point cards with almost any purchase anywhere. And when we get merit rewards in return for our patronage this tucks us into bed at night with a cuddly sense of accomplishment.

We work hard and get Awards of Merit when we do something that others think is excellent. Some even get merit pay for performing well, merit commendations for pulling babies out of fires, mentions in the pages of publications or maybe even a day named in their honor (which would include a free pizza lunch if they're really lucky). People plan their whole careers around what merit points they will collect next, like a person hunched over a kitchen table with snubby-nosed scissors cutting out coupons from weekly shopping flyers.

Of course, all this began long before you and even I existed. They say the idea might have emanated from the legendary American Dream, the idea of which I hear grew out of Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches stories from the mid-1800's. His stories all centered around the theme, "by leading exemplary lives, struggling valiantly against poverty and adversity” anyone can gain both wealth and honor. At its core was a few basic messages: a) each of us is judged solely on our own merits, and b) we each have a fair opportunity to develop those merits. Some call this the Horatio Alger Myth because they believe that the ability for everyone to develop merits is affected by things like pedigree, race, gender, sexual orientation (or in my case the ugly factor) and those variables do play an appreciable role in how our actions are appraised. But I remain hopeful that, with good people, we'll make it right. Until then I try to remember what my mother used to suggest as I went out the back door in the morning: Do the best you can.

It's interesting to note that when we help others, or when we're kind, or we do great work, or choose to lead exemplary lives, or perform well, it's not always to get something back. Sometimes we're just doing what we probably would have done anyway. For the joy of it.
“Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in” ~ Mark Twain

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Oh. My. A. Website.

With the preponderance of miracles happening on the interweb these days, I suppose it was inevitable that one would pop up and allow this technically all-thumbs, non-back-end creative type to come up with a web site. Admittedly a simple site, it's the result of a few hours on a Saturday messing about on a site called (with time out to search for my scissors when they were sitting right beside my laptop, plus multiple treks to the kitchen only to wonder what I went to the kitchen for, and of course time to yell at the cat) has resulted in a hallmark in the annals of history just possibly worthy of note.

Over the last day or so I checked out a few site builders, through mere (almost morbid) curiosity, and I ended up here. The good thing is you can choose between HTML5 based (for multiple device compatibility) or Flash based (for glitz). I chose the HTML5 direction. The site offers a number of templates to tinker with which delighted me because I love tinkering with what other people have done.

It's intended to be a personal work in progress, and somehow the title "Rand Until Now" seemed appropriate. You don't want to say "that's all there is" afterall. I then thought, gee Rand, you should give it a proper name so went to CIRA and registered, which seemed appropriate, given that's my name and all (and it was surprisingly available). Now, with the URL, when people go there's no mention of Cubender and folks think I'm a genius. Which I am of course, just not at coding.

So, I guinea pigged it for you. Check it out. Tell 'em I sent you. :o)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Male Pattern Bafflegabbin'

Spending some say with main man Ray
He don't got no way of nothin' to say
Portray and sashay all you may
All Ray say is a shady-heydy-hey

Rollin' kookie moves from boddum to detop
Cop rides do the doo-wop to the big bebop
Moves ain't boughten in no jive-ass shop
Doo wop 'n shoo bop 'til you drop.

I may be a nutteroonie but I'm not unaware of the worldishness around me. Patterns of weirdiocrity predominate as we progressitate as a humanility into a new year. News media becoming opinionators. Leaders of people committing citizencide. People who figure they can't meet with people because of the precedentations it might set. Any conversation about issueations brings out crazisaurises. And I always thought that bafflegabbitors was meant to be entertaining confugabblelations for youngsters to squeal in delight. Silly nonsensity meant for giggleheadilating. Instead, I find myself in a worldidity where the ridicularitishishness is the normalitization.

I'm into it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Ways To Stretch A Dollar... I Mean A Loonie

"Stretched Loonie"
If you're not familiar with Canada, we don't really have a normal dollar, we have a coin called a Loonie. It wasn't officially called that, but the common loon on the tail side prompted the popular nickname and in 2006 the Mint secured the rights to the name. Introduced in 1987 as a replacement for our paper dollar, it was originally made from a bronze-nickel combination, then it was something else and then in 2012 they switched it to a brass and steel composition (which made it lighter in weight and therefore incompatible with some vending machines and most parking meters).

Not only is a metal coin difficult to try to tuck into garter belts and fold to put into pockets, it's almost impossible to stretch to help make ends meet.

But with a bit of innovation even Canadians, who Stephen Colbert calls our "poutine-sucking, health-care-addicted nemesis to the north," can stretch a budget. Here are some ways you too can adapt in lean times:
1) Ask people who live close to you if you can store your milk in their refrigerator. Unplug your fridge. Get keys to their back door. Raid fridge when they're out. Leave an I.O.U. note
2) Take your significant other out to dinner with a 2-for-1 coupon. They won't mind paying for their meal. Really
3) Feed guests leftovers, items just past their best before date... and food that other people bought that you don't like
4) Post a list of free, fun things to do somewhere in your home. Include shoveling snow, cleaning out the closet and visiting distant relatives
5) In Canada, there is no reason to keep your freezer plugged in for the winter. Move it outside to the backyard or balcony
6) Razor blades just get dull. Besides, there is absolutely nothing wrong with body hair
7) Use the fact that the moment you get your car washed it just begins to get dirty again. When you meet people, say, "Can you believe it? I just had it washed!"
8) Wear clothes to work that don't have to be dry cleaned. Dark colors don't have to be washed as often
9) Lighting your home costs money. Memorize where your furniture is and turn off those lights. What's a few barked shins? And finally
10) Paper towels can be rinsed out, dried and reused for at least a few months.

A final note: Economists have come out recently saying we should stop calling our dollar a Loonie because it makes Canada look silly on the international stage. But the great thing about us Canadians is our ability to poke fun at ourselves. Really, Canada's Loonie seems to be doing quite well relative to international markets. The real issue, if there is one, isn't the name but what it will buy. And it's by no means isolated to Canada. Inflation calculators estimate that a 1950 dollar is worth approximately $9.55 today. In the 50's, you could get a loaf of bread for about 12 cents, and a gallon of milk for 82 cents. A gallon of gas cost just 20 cents, and a letter could be mailed for 3 cents.  

That, I would hazard a guess, was the last time a dollar was worth a dollar.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Grownup Grades

When we were little kids, about the first thing we learned after we learned how to laugh and cry was how we were going to get tested and what that meant. When we got a bad mark everyone said, "Aha! You failed! You should feel horrible!" Then maybe we got grounded for, like, ever or at least until we thought about it a while and we promised to apply ourselves better.

We hated tests. Brains froze at the thought of exams. Pop quizzes were the stuff that struck terror into minds. Multiple choice and true or false questions were bearable because there was either a one-in-four chance or a fifty-fifty chance of guessing right. There was a natural distaste of "being brought up to standard".

Britain introduced standardized testing in schools in the late 19th century to try to give everyone a certain quality of education. They brought it over from British India (where it was adapted from the Chinese model) and it spread not only throughout the British Commonwealth, but to Europe and then America, and good grades in standardized testing meant the standard had been met or surpassed. This was all fueled by the Industrial Revolution where new methods of mass manufacturing set standards that allow us to have things like cars with engines that work. Size 10 shoes that fit size 10 feet. Milk cartons with a best before date.

Then, we got older, left school and we were glad to get away from all those tests. But we'd gotten so used to proving ourselves by then we realized the grades we get from others still mattered. Because we wanted to be considered good at what we do, noticed and admired by people we respected.

So today, those who think that we're only as good as our last job, our last game, our last speech or our last kiss; will recognize we're graded everyday on our abilities, our wellness, our dedication, our aptitude, our heart, our sense of humor and our knowledge. By anyone who cares to notice. Even by ourselves.

As much as some people think otherwise, grading ourselves is how we get things to work and get new things to work better. And when you know how things work, you can fix things when they break, or even before they do. Helpfully. By combining what we know with what we do.

Maybe 2013 will prove to a more productive year if we hand out a few grades. Let people know we care. Nicely. And help those who need to apply themselves better do just that.