Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

Wave-Tossed but Not Sunk

The use of social media has many side effects.  Allows us to stay in touch with friends and family far away.  Archives our memories .  Provides us with fora for arguing about trivia like the theme on holiday coffee cups.

The Facebook "robot" picks posts from the past to remind of moments. From time to time, I will receive a suggestion about a memory from two or three of five years ago.

Saturday morning when I woke, as I was drinking my coffee (from a mug my son got as a gift during a class trip to San Diego, not the controversial, plain, red, paper cup) I received a suggestion about a memory one year ago.

I was a bit sad to get the suggestion - an image from one year ago, returning on a Friday night from work, to our apartment in Paris. Some tulips, and then out for dinner at a nearby neighbourhood restaurant.

Probably not unlike one of the venues that witnessed so much bloodshed the day before.

Just one year ago, yet seemingly an eternity.  

No Charlie Hebdo shooting. 

No murders at Hypercasher.

No massacre across Paris.

None of these things had happened yet; but the wheels were likely already well in motion.  The ball had been dropped into the top of the little mousetrap, and it was simply a matter of time - borrowed time - before the events unfolded.

I've been thinking of Paris and France a lot over the past four days, as I suspect many have.  I'm not French by birth, but we spent a couple of years living in Paris, and we think of the city as a sort of second home.  Many friends were left behind (thankfully, all are safe).  

I reflect on long, summer evenings (France sits much further north than most Americans realise, so dusk in July comes after 10 PM).  Walking with my family to the many small restaurants for dinner, or a picnic with a bottle of rose by the Seine.  Popping in to the boulangerie for a baguette de tradition or on the odd occasion, to Dalloyau across the street for some macarons.  Taking my little boy to school, strolling past the Haussmann buildings along the Parc Monceau or floating a little sailboat in the Grand Bassin at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  Exploring a six hundred year old church.

Americans have a very complicated relationship with France generally, but ours (my family's) is quite simple, actually.  France for two years was home, and thus what has happened has certainly had an effect.

I wonder, what is likely to change in Paris following these terrible events?  The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has cautioned that there may be similar terrible days to come.  Of course, it would be irresponsible to state otherwise.  The French have a system called vigipirate to alert residents to dangers - initiated in 1978, two and a half decades before 9/11 and the US Department of Homeland Security.  

Parisians will likely be more alert, more vigilant to potential threats.  But murderous acts of terrorism like this are sadly, not new.  

I've remained connected to French social media since returning to the US this summer, and glimmers of defiance mixed with desire to normalcy are apparent.  French journalist Antoine Leiris today published an open letter to ISIS, responding to the murder of his wife and the mother of his year and a half old son:

Je n’ai d’ailleurs pas plus de temps à vous consacrer, je dois rejoindre Melvil qui se réveille de sa sieste. Il a 17 mois à peine, il va manger son goûter comme tous les jours, puis nous allons jouer comme tous les jours et toute sa vie ce petit garçon vous fera l’affront d’être heureux et libre.
(I have no more time to waste on you. I have to join Melvil [the little boy] who is waking from his nap.  He is just 17 months old; he is going to eat his snack, like always.  Then, we are going to play.  Like always.  And for all of his life, this little boy will offend you with his happiness and his freedom)  
The French have contributed enormously to the culture of the world - through food, and wine, and art, and architecture, and science. France is the land of Descartes and Rousseau and Voltaire. The Louvre, the Eiffer Tower, the Notre Dame Cathedral.

But more than anything, the French have given to the world a joy of living.  I suspect that no bomb from a seventh century savage is a match for that.

And thus, like little Melvil, I believe that the people in Paris will have their meal.  Like every day.  Many will go enjoy the park.  Like every day.  Still others will have a glass of wine with friends.  Like always.

Today, there is a call across various media and other outlets for a movement called "tous a bistro." (everyone to the restaurant).  The expressed goal is for people to leave their fears in the cupboard at home, go down the street to the corner restaurant, and sit for a meal with family and friends.  

What could be a more French reaction than that?

Fluctuat nec mergitur.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Just Drink Your Coffee Already

Well, we've passed by Hallowe'en, and Thanksgiving is just on the horizon, so it must be time for the annual battle of Christmas.

Sorry; the holidays.

The past couple of days, social and actual media have been polluted with noise around an (in my opinion, imagined) slight of Christmas by the Starbucks coffee company.  Apparently, this year, Starbucks have decided that their "holiday" cups will be simple, red paper cups with the corporate logo.  In the past, also apparently, the cups have featured themes of trees and ornaments with holiday messages on them.

Wintry scenes (e.g., polar bears sledding) have also appeared - not sure the link between Christmas and polar bears, aside from CGI of them drinking Coke.

The move has been ginned into an almost literal tempest in a teapot - or at least a teacup - when a previously unknown bigmouth called Josh Feurstein decided to make an issue, declaring that Starbucks was trying to kick Christ out of Christmas.

Starbucks have said that the move was not anti-Christian, but rather, were going for a "purity of design that welcomes all of our stories."

Seems reasonable to me.

I have no idea if Starbucks is anti-Christian - previously, they've stuck to using poorly brewed, over-priced coffee to offend.

I don't like to talk too much about my own religion - itself a personal matter - but I believe in God, I regularly attend church, and I am not offended.

But you would think, from the reaction, that the Pope himself is asking for a new crusade against the Seattle-based company.  The Washington Post headline screamed that Christians were "outraged."  Social Justice Warriors are falling all over themselves trying to show just how 'correct' they are in attacking the ostensible hypocrisy on display (and make no mistake, the noise generated by Feurstein is hypocrisy).

But the huge "controversy" and Christian "outrage" amounts to largely the rantings of some off-kilter guy screaming into his iPhone camera. That, and the apparent venal sin of people telling the "baristas" that their name is "MerryChristmas," to "force" the guy filling the orders to write "Christmas" on the cup.

Where is my fainting chair?

If DailyKos (who in one WaPo story apparently have been following this guy for years) and the SJWs had not reported on this, who would have heard of Feurstein?  A quick Google search returns several thousand hits, the first eight or 10 pages of which are links that virtually all contain the word "nut job" or similar.

The biggest noise here is not the initial, silly complaint, but the echo chamber of the Right Side of History Gang each trying to outdo the other to show how righteous his views are.

When I hear overzealous religious people beating their breasts and proclaiming how strong their faiths are, I often ask, whom are you trying to convince?

In this case, I ask all those who feel compelled to bleat about Josh Feurstein and the massive problem of Christian hypocrisy here, whom are you trying to convince of your rectitude?

By all means; tweet memes about what a swell, right-thinking person you are.

Then, please.  Just go have your coffee in your plain red cup and leave the rest of us alone.

Monday, 9 November 2015

And Your Bird Can Sing

Today is a big day for our family - a really big day for our son.

Most Mondays, the alarm rings at 6.30.  We take the dog out for a walk.  Feed the dog and prepare breakfast for our son.  Coffee is made and consumed.  Lunch packed.  Then out the door to school.

This particular, rainy morning, however, everything began at 5 AM.  And it ended not with a quick ride to school, but instead with me waving to him as he cleared security at SFO.

Today our little guy is off on his own for a week to "School at Sea" in San Diego.

It's his first time away from home on his own.  Now, Alastair of course has been "away" many times.  We lived overseas for a couple of years, and he has had the chance to visit upwards of 40 countries in his brief 10 years of life.  San Diego is not exactly "exotic," even with the expolits of Ron Burgundy now famous.

But it is equally true that thus far, every single day of his life, he has spent with either his mother, with me, or with us both.  He's never spent the night away from home.  And so, needless to say, he was just a bit anxious in the days leading up.

Though life itself is a more or less continuous function, it is frequently delineated by quite discrete "moments." Some of these events are obvious - first day at school, for example.  Others are a bit obscure at the time, and become remembered as critical only later after the story of our lives is more fully revealed.

Last night, as we were preparing for bed, Alastair made it known subtly that he was just a wee bit nervous (a ten year old boy is a bit at sixes and sevens - he is too old to be obviously nervous, but not too cool to want to let us know when he is worried.)  He was asking about what it would be like to be away, what he might expect at the camp.

I told him that at the same age, we had a pretty similar experience (in truth - I was fudging a bit, as our week away at "Camp School" happened in grade six and not five).  At eleven, the lot of our class was loaded up into a school bus (we rode buses, and did not have the luxury of flying, even if on Southwest Airlines) and were off for a week at "Mohican School in the Out-of-Doors".  

I remember being quite anxious to be away - like Alastair - for the first time in life.  We lived in "cabins," with community dining hall across the campus, supervised by counselors whom we had not seen.  I can remember the "hall" I lived in, and the 'tribe' a belonged to. (This was 35 years ago, and thus the subject of whether naming our groups after Native American tribes was offensive or not had not yet arisen to our suburban consciousness). 

Alastair is paired with his new best friend at his school, which is in a sense better than I was positioned, as all my friends from school were in different cabins and tribes.  

In retrospect, it didn't really matter.  What I remember the most about the week was not that my friends slept in different cabins, ate at different tables, or "studied" in different tribes,  I remember the first senses of independence; of being somewhat responsible to get up and get to breakfast on time, and then to class on my own.  Of course, there were counselors (in our case, Mr Rensberger, for whom we quickyl ginned up an unfortunate nickname for) to ensure we did not colour too far outside the lines.

I told Alastair about our week catching crayfish in the creek and feeding them to the school mascot, a raccoon.  So many were fed by all of us that at mid-week, we were all instructed by the camp leadership to cease, as the poor animal was nearly bursting from a too-rich seafood diet.  

It's three and a half decades later, and I can still recall the anxiousness of course, but also the evenings walking back under the stars, the making new friends, and the exhiliration of being away.  When the week was up, we all loaded back onto our bus and returned home to our awaiting parents.

I waved good-bye to my little boy this morning as he showed his boarding card to the agents, put his backpack on the x-ray belt, and then walked away down the ramp to his gate.  He stopped, turned to wave, and then went on with his friend Luc, discussing topics I can only guess at (I suspect Rubik's Cube was involved somehow, as Luc had one in his backpack waiting the boarding).

Alastair will come back at the end of the week, and has crossed another of the events defining his life.  It's a small one, but nevertheless a significant one.  He is surely anxious, just as I was, but I suspect that he is in for an exititing week with his friends.  And I also suspect he will have several stories that, in 35 years, he will be regailing his own kids with.  

I'm sure he will have fun, and he will have no trouble to put aside his worries and sleep just fine.

Now, if we can ensure that his mom does the same....

Friday, 6 November 2015

Politics as Theatre

Where Do the Floppy Shoes Fit?
It's been said that politics is a sort of show business for unattractive people; not sure who first came up with the aphorism, but it's been recently been on display in the theatrics around the coming 2016 elections in the US.

Donald Trump, erstwhile real estate developer, "reality" television icon, and general big mouth has been drawing an awful lot of attention in a somewhat quixotic bid to become the Republican Party nominee for president.  Mr Trump does what he does best, which is draw attention to himself, making statements that are decidedly impolitic.  It seems to me unlikely, at best, that he has any chance of being his party's nominee, or if, indeed, he actually wants to be, but he's selling a lot of cheap hats and likely, drawing a lot of people to the coffee, pizza, and ice cream shops at his property on Fifth Avenue in New York.

There is even a meme going around the social media sphere about "things that look like Donald Trump," including a bird, an ear of corn, an Eastern European truck overloaded with hay bales, and oddly, a doughnut with the filling exploding from the top, presumably following some time spent in a microwave oven.

My personal favourite is a cat with a terrible comb-over:

Presumably, the feline does not have access to the same resources as Mr Trump, so its "hair" is excusable.

Another favourite target (right now) is former surgeon Ben Carson - formerly the head of paediatric neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins University - not exactly Hollywood Upstairs Medical School (with apologies to Dr Nick Riviera).

Dr Carson is being lampooned mercilessly around the blogo- and twitter-sphere for outlandish remarks about the pyramids, stick-ups at Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurants, and, more substantively, whether he would support a Moslem candidate for president.

Ben Carson is a gifted surgeon (he performed the world's first - and I believe still, only - operation to separate conjoined twins joined at the skull).  That does not really qualify him to be president, which many have already pointed out.  Skill in one field does not translate into another - Gary Cooper was a great actor; he was pitiful as a baseball player, as anyone who has seen him "swing" a bat or throw a ball in "Pride of the Yankees" can attest.

It all adds up to a running trope that the Republican primary is a sort of "clown car," which the Washington Post's Dana Millbank has declared this to be so months ago.

Pace Mr Millbank, the issue is that the Republican field is just too large:
There are far too many candidates (so many that there are concerns they won’t all fit on a debate stage), and to gain attention they are juggling, tooting horns and blowing slide whistles like so many painted performers emerging from a clown car.
Now, I've personally referred to the race as a clown car, and I do not disagree that there are candidates (Donald Trump, or Ben Carson) who plainly come across as unqualified and unprepared.  That adds a certain air of slide whistles and floppy shoes, as Dana Millbank says.

But really - is the alternative really better?  Is the fact that the Democrats have really NO reasonable alternative offered up to Hillary Clinton what Millbank and others want?

I watched the Democrats' (thus far, only) debate.  With respect to Bernard Sanders - who is running, I think, a principled but doomed campaign - this is a coronation.

And the dauphine is really an awful choice.

While people are laughing about Ben Carson's comments that the pyramids of Egypt were actually grain silos built by Joseph, no one is laughing about Hillary Clinton's blatant dissembling about the recently revealed Trans Pacific Partnership.  The pact - perhaps the single greatest actual accomplishiment of her time as Secretary of State - and surely overshadows ANYTHING she accomplished in the senate - she is now rushing to denounce it.  When asked why she called it "the gold standard" as Secretary, she offered the defence that she "hoped it would be the gold standard."

Does anyone believe this?  

She is decidedly not being asked many difficult questions, and when she avoids them, there is no push back.  When asked "What would be different about you as president compared to Mr Obama," her answer was that she would be a woman.

Yes; Mrs Clinton is a woman.  And yes; Mr Obama is a man.  But if that is the alpha and omega of what she brings in terms of new vision, why on earth would anyone vote for her?  It's blatant pandering; "Vote for me because I am a woman."

Ben Carson, who has no chance of election, is a bit nutty about the pyramids.

Mrs Clinton, who is the odds-on favourite to be the next president, is lying about the trade deal.

Which is actually more of a problem?

The Republican nomination is a bit of a clown car; there probably are too many debates.  Too many candidates.  And as Dana Millbank points out, they often appear to be engaging in outlandish behaviour to draw attention.  Mrs Clinon, however, appears to be doing whatever she can to avoid any attention at all - no press Q and A sessions, carefully managed and scripted meetings.  

While one can laugh about Donald Trump's hair or debate "undercards," there is something far more sinister about what is going on on the Democrat side - where Mrs Clinton is basically eliding to the nomination with wink and nod from the press.  

The Republican clown car is comedy.

The Democratic coronation is tragedy.

Monday, 2 November 2015

With Your Fist Holding Tight, to the Strings of Your Kite

Days of Future Past

This morning, my news feed brought this opinion piece from the Guardian newspaper in London. The author in it had commented wistfully about what she calls a "full empty nest syndrome," which is to say that her family has reached a sort of quasi-limbo stage - known in many parts as "adolescence" - in which her children are physically present in the home, but emotionally absent.

Our son is ten years old, so adolescence is juuust over the hill over there (squint and point to an imagined horizon in the distance).  He's still very much present in our home and in our lives. 

For now.

It's an odd read, and certainly, I am awaiting his encroaching teen years with ambivalence.  But what struck me and stuck with me in the hundreds of words was this passage:

When our children are very young we think we are living in hell. 
We think that nothing could ever be as bad as this living hell, except possibly if our father-in-law came round for tea as well and pointed out how we should just relaaaax more.
When we’re deep in the exhausting Hell of the Early Years, the temptation to abandon the children in a petrol station forecourt with a packet of Skips to keep them going and a note saying Out of Order taped to its dummy, can be overwhelming. 
This Living Hell scenario of the Early Years, suffocating us slowly from all sides like a gigantic, infected pustule of exhaustion, tantrums, resentment, laundry and human excrement, has the unfortunate side-effect of somewhat overshadowing the beauty and wonder and loveliness of life with young children.
So many times I wished those years were over. Over and over. And over again.
We all do.
I confess, though it's true that the first few months (in our case, six) of life can be exhausting, that the series of days where you simply do not string together more than three hours of sleep consecutively are impossible to truly prepare for, I never thought of the early days of our little boy's life as a living hell. 

I surely did not wish them to be "over."  Once or over and over again.

Everything Lasts...Until it Doesn't

I don't pretend to be some sort of Oracle of parenthood, but when our son was tiny, people advised us that the days were magical, and to be treasured.

I am almost 50 years old, and thus, I know magic is not real, and in any case, its illusion does not last long.  We clung to the moments for as long as we could - knowing that night follows day as surely as day follows morning.  The sun is up, it shines, and it warms.  But we know it will set.

No amount of holding a little one's hand tightly can stop it.

The author complains about having to read the same children's stories, doing the same voices for the thousandth time.  

Our son had an illustrated book of Mother Goose rhymes, and we 'read' it together so many times that the pages have long fallen out, the spine is broken, and the cover is, well, it's seen better days.  We kept that book, and every now and then, we pull it out and for just a moment, he's two and wide-eyed and 'reading' along with "I Saw a Ship a Sailing."

A little while back, we were sitting and looking at some old photos; my little boy (not so little now, of course) saw one of me tossing him into the air and it struck him that I no longer pick him up and play with him like that any more.  

"Daddy, why did you stop throwing me in the air?" he asked.

"Well, for one, mommy was never too keen on it," I answered (truthfully).  "But there is a couple of trends, each going in the opposite direction going on.  First, you are getting bigger.  Second, I am getting older. Either of those alone eventually is enough, eventually, to keep you grounded.  Together..."

Everything lasts until it doesn't. A friend once me told me to pay attention to moments as your child grows up.  Picking him up.  Brushing his teeth.  Sorting his clothes for the day. 

Holding his hand across the street.

For all of these small moments - every one of them - there will be a last time it will happen.  You won't recognise it when it occurs, but it surely will.

My little boy still holds my hand when we cross a busy street, but I know one day, he won't.

One day will be the last time your child will hold your hand to cross the street. You will not know when it comes, so hold on tight every time you do.