Spring is the time for cleaning. Or at least, the time when your windows shame you into cleaning. Or if you have no shame, the time when you avoid looking out the windows in the middle of the day if the sun is shining. But for me it’s less about the clean part and more about the spring de-cluttering exercise. This is a result of spending too much time indoors and the resulting excessive familiarity with the things inhabiting the house that breeds contempt. For example, the hanging pot rack seemed like a good idea at the time. All of those pots and pans right at the ready! All of those pots and pans that are less than shiny. All of those pots and pans, period. Who really needs five frying pans?
Even though I am pretty good at editing my collection of stuff, there are some things that are impossible to get rid of. Some of this has to do with nature of the objects themselves, especially if they are objects of nature. For example, take my collection of rocks. They aren’t boring old pebbles. They are crystals and geodes and granite with flecks of fool’s gold and pink beach rocks. They are also completely useless.
The same goes for the collection of shells. Conch and clam and spiny things and Neptune things and sand dollars that are a few pennies short of perfect. One artful glass jar full of shells is a lovely feng shui addition to any room. Ten jars full is a dubious decorating decision.
Then what about those University text books? I think the problem is the amount of money I paid for them and also the fact that philosophy really doesn’t change, especially the thoughts of the ancient philosophers and even the 20th century ones that happen to be dead. Of course I have no desire to read them again (and in fact I had about the same amount of desire to read them in the first place). But they still sit in a box in the basement because how can you possibly throw out wisdom?
My copy of Bleak House also still prevails. I just cannot get rid of something that consumed countless hours of my life I will never get back, as if somehow by keeping it as an (unread) hostage I’m returning the favour. It’s also a talisman that reminds me not to finish any book I don’t completely want to read.
But spring is also a time of optimism and renewal, which gives me the strength to move forward. Those extra frying pans – couldn’t they be ironic birdbaths if mounted on the top of a tree stump at the cottage? And how better to throw out rocks than to artfully incorporate them into the edge of the garden. And while I’m at it, those shells would have an ironic and artful existence as random follys in the midst of the forest. A few problems solved. Now if only I could figure out how to throw out a garbage can.
I now have my fingerprints on file. This might be a good thing in case something bad happens to me (and a note to all: if the basement floor looks recently enrobed in concrete, please ask some questions). On the other hand I now have my fingerprints on file, which places certain constraints on future activity if I don’t want to end up on the cover of the National Enquirer.
This is because I am now an officially trusted traveller. I don’t know why they didn’t trust me before because I am certainly very trust worthy. To become a trusted traveller you need to supply approximately the same amount of information to the government as you need to fork over to the Kremlin to get a Russian visa. I am not quite sure why Russia makes it so hard to get into the country, since last I heard people would rather make the migration the other way over the ocean. Just in case you ever need to go there, to get a Russian visa you need to fill out the (paper only) form. Make sure you have your job and travel history for the past 10 years handy and if you have ever served in the military, good luck with that. Then take your form in person to the Consulate office with your money order (no electronic payments going on here) and wait in line, which would be your first introduction to Russian culture. Oh and I forgot to add, you will need an invitation letter explaining why on earth you would want to visit.
Once the Russian officials have checked your credentials, you will need to surrender your passport for about 6 weeks to process the visa, probably manufactured by members of Pussy Riot in a Siberian jail. This is a little disconcerting to say the least, especially when you are not sure if you will need it in the interim and how exactly would I explain to U.S. border control that I do have a passport but currently it’s in Russia?
But I digress. I am now the proud owner of a Nexus pass that (theoretically) allows me to breeze through North American security and border control. In practice this only works some of the time. That is, it only works at airports in very major cities. You can breeze through Toronto security and not have to take off your shoes or even talk to a U.S. official when you are on your stateside journey.
Things went a little south on the way back north. Boston, for example, does not believe in Nexus no matter how hard I tried to convince them I did not really have to take off my boots because I was proven to not be a shoe bomber . Unfortunately my own border also let me down. Of the four machines that welcome the iris of my eye back on sovereign land, only two were functional. Scratch that. The two functional ones kept going out of business once they had decided I matched my eye credentials. I tried not to take it personally, but I am now gaining a new respect for Russian efficiency.
I have recently become the object of some unwanted attention: I have a tax stalker. This is completely my fault because I made a very big mistake on my 2012 tax return. This mistake was so bad that a file was opened (probably a red file) and I gained a personal relationship with a tax department official, whose sole task is to protect the national treasury of tax dollars and make the world safe for law abiding citizens (and surely I was not a member in good standing of that community).
This all began with a voice message from the tax department that asked me to call them about an issue with my 2012 return. We then played telephone tag for about two months. I considered it a good sign that trading phone messages seemed to stave off any potential escalation of attempts to contact me, but I did go on higher alert for ‘dry cleaning’ vans loitering outside my door.
During all of this I had no idea what the problem might be that also gave me ample time to speculate. Did they object that had plowed most of my earnings into (government approved) tax shelters and didn’t in fact pay any income tax that year, making me eligible for a rebate on my home energy costs, which means the tax man was actually paying me instead of me paying them. Had I inadvertently included veterinary fees in my medical expenses (and really, no jury of my peers would quarrel with that). Was it a no-no to have billed my time through a third party corporation (and just being able to say I have a relationship with a third party corporation puts me dangerously close to Conrad Black territory, or at least Martha Stewart territory).
Right about then I started to make the plan for what to do to keep myself busy in prison. Perhaps making ponchos would not be out of the question but maybe writing a book might be a better bet. I decided I would call it “Red is the new Black” in honour of my file folder, my hair colour, and also (you probably noted) a clever reference to Mr. Black. How could NetFlix possibly resist?
As it turns out, my grave error was putting my self-employed income on the wrong line of my tax return – the line that says ‘Other Income’. This income was earned by billing people an hourly fee for renting my brain. The contract(s) specified a particular number of hours it would take to complete the job, and at an agreed interval I would send invoices via an incorporated entity to avoid any inference of an employment arrangement with my clients. Near as I can tell, if I had never told the tax man I had earned this money, they would never have known that I had earned it. The essence of my crime, therefore, was a failed attempt at honesty. I am really not sure what the moral of this story is. Perhaps it’s that honesty is the best policy, except when it’s not.
My favourite plastic food container died today. Actually, it wasn’t the container itself but the lid that bit the dust. Apparently plastic of a certain type is not destined to survive dishwasher treatment for more than 10 years or so. This particular container was better than many. It could hold a good swath of coleslaw or be a good interim home for leftover Thai food or politely nestle a swatch of polenta lasagne. I think its most redeeming qualities were indeed its only qualities: an oval shape and a lid that had an ample leverage point for forgiving the fingernail (and alas, the latter would be the nail it its coffin shaped shape).
The plastic food container has been around for many years since, but has never been as celebrated as when it debuted under the Tupperware brand in 1948, because it meant that the average housewife could more effectively save leftovers. But in the 1960′s, the products on offer evolved into essentials like popsicle (oops, I think that should be ‘ice pop’) moulds, salt and pepper shakers decked in transparent white and gray (which someone decided we really needed to figure out how to differentiate via a prominent ‘P’ and ‘S’ on the lid), and rolling pins (are you kidding me?). This also led us all to believe there were no colours other than green, pink, yellow and blue. But then again, we already knew that based on our experience with various siblings who had a nasty habit of not announcing their gender pre-birth.
There is no denying that the leftover food container (literally) bulks large in most of our lives. Who among us has not opened a cupboard door to be assaulted by random plastic vessels? And even more importantly, who has not wasted many minutes of life searching for the lid of the container that is best suited to carting our lunch to work. I recently spent a day sorting through and throwing out the miss-matched sets, and I still have as many orphaned containers as spare socks.
One might think the purpose of the leftover food container is to safely store food until it can be consumed at a not-to-later date. In reality, that later date usually becomes so much later as to create a new iteration of the food in question. So the purpose of the container is actually to contain the goo until garbage day. Then we put it in the dishwasher to be suitably disinfected enough to hold the next landfill offering. And then it breaks and must go into the garbage. And so the cycle continues.
You probably know that Canada Post has decided to phase out the remaining bastions of door-to-door delivery. This would include me (the knowing part, as well as the soon to be without delivery part). The decline of mail delivery has been going on for a long time, so I am mildly amused with those who are currently having a hissy fit – not the least of which are mail carriers.
In fact, although I did not grow up in a super mailbox suburb, I did not grow up with a mailman. We had a post office, where you could inquire at the desk for large shipments, which were usually new wardrobe additions from the Sears catalogue, or more often than not, sigh in despair at the empty post box.
I now live in an urban center that provides personal delivery of mail, but for some time I have seen cracks in the postal service ‘service’. I think it started with my post guy complaining about my lack of mailbox. For the record, I have a perfectly good slot in the door that has served my house well since 1904. Unfortunately, in 1904 they didn’t have Vanity Fair magazines (the Hollywood issue being particularly thick). So being a good servant of the civil service, I spent $150 to buy a suitably suitable mailbox that wouldn’t clash with my antique brick work. I thought all would be well after that. Little did I know.
Apparently there is a hidden code of conduct for door-to-door mail delivery customers. The first rule is not to have too much mail because it is very inconsiderate. Some of this I can control (I admit to an alarming amount of periodicals), and some I cannot (BMO, I am talking to you). Anyhow, I apparently have too much mail, which makes it inconvenient to transport it to my extremely accommodating shiny new mailbox.
The second rule is to not have steps up to your house, at least on days when it is raining, snowing or not high summer, which make it even harder to schlep the mail to the vicinity of my doorstep. Much better to wrap it in an elastic and fling it on to the front porch. Even better if it actually makes it to its intended destination, as opposed to landing in the garden.
The third rule is the rule of three: why deliver mail every day when every third day will do? I know the nasty note about a glacier at the bottom of my stairs (see rule #2) may have been a contributing factor, although I did have note from Canadian Tire excusing me due to a lack of salt, but really Mr. Postman – if there’s a letter for me, I’ve been waiting so patiently. Just like I’m waiting patiently for winter to end.
I spend most of my day on the phone. I am not having conversations that are, like, awesome discussions about whether Justin Bieber is still hot or not. I am not texting my current whereabouts or dinner plans. I am not taking selfies and uploading them to Instagram. No, I am doing work or trying to at least. That’s because I am almost always on conference calls with people in other time zones. In fact, I think I have probably become the world’s best expert at determining the best confluence of the universe to hold a meeting between people in Seattle, South Africa and Sweden. But that is not the topic today.
You would think that this far into the 21st century we would have perfected conference call and virtual meeting technology. I am sorry to say this is as elusive as Oprah’s quest for thinner thighs (or maybe at this point she has given up and who could blame her because clearly she is proof that money cannot buy thin – but I digress). That is why I thought it was important to appeal to telecommunication mavens, wherever they may be, to get on the case and immediately solve this (literally) world problem. To help out, I am happy to share the seven highly dysfunctional habits of the teleconference.
1. Who just joined? Those of us who live in cyberphoneland know that it is a folly to record your name after the tone. That’s because when you drop off accidentally (and you know you will), there will be a constant barrage of ‘Susan just left the meeting’ ‘Susan just joined the meeting’. Also, when the unlucky person who is chairing the meeting asks who just joined, several people will talk at the same time or for that matter, not talk, so it is always impossible to know at any given time who is actually in the meeting.
2. How is the weather there? Not that I am against some pleasantries before everyone has gathered for the meeting, but really, do we have anything else to talk about except the weather? No I guess we don’t since I haven’t actually met any of you in person and have no idea what you do from day to day (except attend conference call meetings), so really the only thing we have in common is the weather (or in fact, we don’t because you are somewhere in a different climate than me).
3. Sit, Basil. One advantage of working at home is that you can spend more quality time with your pets. With respect to conference calls, pets in general aren’t an issue, just the ones that bark. I would just like to say this about that: the dog barking in the background while you are trying to make some semblance of an intelligent comment makes the dog look smarter than you do.
4. Press *6 to mute your line. For all of the people that don’t know how to use the mute button (see above) there are equal numbers that ‘forget’ they are on mute. Or more likely, they pretend to forget they are on mute to avoid participating. As in “I’m sorry, did you not hear me? I must have been on mute. But I think that Fred made a really important point and I agree entirely.”
5. Can you hear me now? The good news is it is now possible to dial a phone number without a phone. The bad news is you should never do this. Ever. Because if you do, you will sound like you are calling from the bottom of a well. Or we will hear every second or third word. Or you will cause epic reverb. Just pick up your landline. You don’t have a landline? Then you are not equipped for 21st century conference calls. Just sayin’.
6. Can you see me now? Of course now we have added another complication to the conference call: the virtual presentation. In theory this means you can see someone’s Powerpoint slides. In practice it means you can see a blue screen, a black screen, a screen with wavy lines or their email in-basket (which in many cases is much more interesting than their presentation deck).
7. Who just joined? Part 2. The late joiner is typically the important decision maker who joins the call five minutes before the end and proceeds to ask for a recap of the past 55 minutes so he (and it is mostly always a ‘he’) can weigh in on stuff that has already been agreed upon, prompting the scheduling of yet another conference call.
Apparently January 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the Apple Macintosh computer. One thing that completely annoys me is the way the current day media talks at length about ‘digital natives’ and how much the millennials and their subsequent generations know about technology. I beg to differ because I doubt they would be able to pass a basic computer skills course, especially if it involved punched cards or calculations in hexadecimal. I know the common analogy is that you don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car, but a general lack of technology concepts is why we end up with regrettable selfies that go viral. But I digress.
The Apple Macintosh was a very interesting animal (or fruit, I guess) when it came out. Instead of a command line interface, it dealt in icons. Instead of opening an application to create a document you simply started typing. I spent most of my early career in the bizarre world of the IBM universe, where it was considered normal to have to tell the mainframe computer how much space you would need before being able to create a new file (and really, how would you not be able to do a quick calculation of the number of zeros and ones you would generate by typing a memo?). So you would imagine that with my lack of math aptitude and an entire degree in logic, I would think that a Macintosh was the best thing since sliced bread. That would be wrong.
I was somewhat late to the game of first encounter with the Mac. I think it was around 1990 when I came on board a consulting firm that had just started having computers on desks (no matter that if we were going to maintain our employment status weren’t in the office very frequently). But these were IBM desktops. The Mac was in the corner of the room designated as the ‘library’. It was there for exclusive use for creating ‘graphics’, such as the diagrams we used to illustrate why the neck bone was not connected to the thigh bone, at least not without spending a lot of money on architecture.
For some reason you may be smarter than me to have anticipated, I volunteered to be in charge of the monthly staff newsletter. This was particularly important in the pre-internet days of working remotely from the office. This also gave me the keys to the Mac. Or in reality, the combination lock to the Mac with all of the High School trauma of forgetting the number sequence required to open your locker whenever there was a gap in attendance of two days or more. The Mac was how we created a ‘professional’ looking newsletter, with two columns and a jazzy logo and other cut and paste graphics I MacGyver’d with great sweat and tears at the declining moments of my self-imposed publication deadline.
Anyhow, all matters of the Mac ended up defeating me, from the incomprehensible smiley face guy who looked kind of like the computer but did nothing to explain his function, to the evil time bomb that seemed to show up whenever I was trying to figure out how to find my previous month’s newsletter document. I never did figure out how to turn the thing off or save anything with any degree of confidence. As far as I’m concerned, the Mac did nothing to further the computer interface, especially for those of us who are icon dyslexic. iPhone, I’m talking to you.
The other day I saw a woman with a brand new gym bag heading up the street in the general direction of our local exercise establishment. Then she crossed the street to the subway station, so I figured she was going to another location that was closer to work or had more amenities or a better start time for the spinning class. I continued down the street and at the following intersection I saw the same woman again, just exiting from the next subway station and making her way into the gym. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the person in question took the subway one stop, probably to save her energy for the treadmill.
So here it is January and time for the annual rush to physical fitness venues. And we all know how that usually works out. By the end of February, the only vestige of a relationship with the gym is the line item on the credit card statement. But maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Maybe it’s really because much like any foreign land, gym culture is not immediately welcoming to those from away.
This starts with the interrogation at the front door, where you are asked to present your photo membership ID, enter your membership number, scan your iris and step on a weigh scale with a huge readout on a scoreboard on the wall (I’m kidding about the last one). I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who observed that it seems very silly for gyms go to a lot of trouble to validate your identity, because who would be trying to steal fitness when the people who pay money to join don’t even go.
There are, of course, only slim and well muscled people at the gym (except for the first two weeks of the year, but no one who belongs to the gym would be caught dead there during the height of the resolution rush so the skinny people actually never see anyone outside of their own demographic). This is kind of a weird fact. Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of the gym is how people get into shape in order to be fit enough to be admitted to the club. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
Newcomers to the gym also need to be aware of the territorial nature of the premises. It may look like there are enough elliptical machines, weight benches and spinning cycles to go around, but in reality the gym is an environment of artificial scarcity, or the “perceived scarcity of items even though the technology and production capacity exists to create an abundance”. This applies only to non-rival resources that do not diminish due to one person’s use, and if that’s not the definition of a kettlebell I don’t know what is. Inefficiency associated with artificial scarcity is formally known as a deadweight loss, but perhaps what they really mean is more weight is lost sprinting to snag the treadmill, lunging for the recently vacated weight bench and stretching to claim as much aerobics studio floor space as possible, than due to all other gym activities combined. Something tells me gym management has already figured that out.
The crossword puzzle turned 100 last week, which has prompted all manner of adulation. The first ‘word cross’ puzzle debuted December 21, 1913 in the New York World and has been a fixture in newspapers ever since. I know that many people actually like crossword puzzles. I do not. Here is why:
1. There is really no point to a crossword puzzle. If you manage to fill in all of the blanks you get a square that is subdivided into little squares, where all of the blanks have been filled in. That’s it. Oh sure, you might get some momentary satisfaction from having completed all of the squares but really, if that is your biggest accomplishment of the day I think you have set your bar pretty low.
2. Apparently studies have shown that people who do crossword puzzles are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and will probably live longer. I think the only thing crossword puzzles actually do is clutter up your brain with useless information, like the name of the symbol used for Chinese currency (the renminbi, by the way), or the names of all of Santa’s reindeer. I admit that some of this information is also useful to people who play Scrabble, but as you have probably guessed I hate that too. And I also don’t think that solving crossword puzzles makes you live longer – it just feels that way.
3. People who create crossword puzzles are called cruciverablists. The fact they even have a formal name and that the name sounds like secret society or cult should be the first clue that they should be given a wide berth. Cruciverablists also do not need to conform to rules that apply to the rest of us. For example, they need not restrict themselves to dictionary words when creating their masterpieces and are known to use Roman numerals with abandon even though most of us stopped using them in the 11th century. If I started using mostly words that aren’t the dictionary and counting in Roman numerals, I think I would be carted off to the locked ward pretty quickly.
4. People who do crossword puzzles never actually do the puzzle. They just pretend they do. They are really playing a do-it-yourself version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, complete with ‘phone a friend’ and ‘ask the expert’, the expert usually being Mr. Google or an old fashioned but still functional crossword dictionary. No pursuit where people think that cheating is normal and indeed make no attempt to hide their subterfuge should be encouraged. In fact, I think there should be extra scrutiny of the tax returns of self-admitted crossword puzzlers.
5. It is possible to fill in all of the blanks yet get the puzzle completely wrong. I have seen this myself in airline magazines where they typically include puzzles to placate the captive (because certainly the food isn’t going to do it). I can only hope it wasn’t the pilot who got hold of the copy in my seat back.
Almost every year around this time there are hot commodities on the Christmas shopping list that are in short supply, either because people fall prey to marketing hype or generally lack imagination. I never did have a Cabbage Patch doll, Beanie Baby, or Tickle Me Elmo. But I did have a pet rock, although it wasn’t originally intended for me. Come to think of it, there probably isn’t anything more pathetic than a pet rock re-gift, especially when it comes from a boyfriend. But I digress.
I kept the pet rock for many years and only got rid of it in a fit of de-junkification a year or two ago. As you probably know, the allure of the pet rock wasn’t really about the rock. It was about the owner’s manual. Apparently the guy who invented it was able to print all the original run of manuals pretty much for free by tacking them on to a print job he had already bought. As a result, he became an instant millionaire because the rocks themselves cost about 1 cent each (although if he was actually willing to pay for rocks I could have probably nabbed some consulting dollars from him…). However, the pet rock care and training guide had some very useful information, such as the fact that getting your rock to ‘stay’ would be a very easy task, although ‘roll over’ might require some assistance from the owner. It also advised avoiding trying to teach the rock to ‘attack’ because that would probably not end well.
But that is not the point. The point is that the pet rock falls into the category of things I really should have kept. That’s because, like Beanie Babies and vintage Cabbage Patch dolls, eventually even useless novelties become collector’s items that can reap rewards on eBay as long as they are pretty close to their original condition (I guess that hair cut wasn’t a good idea, Barbie). I also no longer have my Beatles wallet (pink plastic), Expo 67 passport , or any Flintstone’s or astronaut grape jelly jars that turned into drinking glasses when empty, even though we ate our way through gallons of grape jelly to complete the set.
The real the real trick is figuring out what you should hold on to because apparently not everything increases in value. I am still trying to figure out why I have moved my accounting text books several times, except when I look at the price I paid for them. And really, has accounting changed that much over the years that they are now obsolete? Last I checked, debits and credits are still the modus operandi of the accounting profession. Or maybe it’s because I still harbour a secret wish to become an accountant. Regardless, the real key to making money from keeping junk is to encourage everybody else to throw away their ‘useless’ stuff, because if everyone keeps the same thing it becomes worthless.