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Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player

Posted by Marlinee on May 25, 2014 in Middle Age

If Craigslist is a valid statistical sample, it seems you can’t even give away pianos these days. Almost every week a few of them show up in the ‘free’ section. And show up again and again until presumably the owners give up and cart them to the curb. Of course there is always a catch with ‘free’ things. In the case of pianos, the lack of perfection usually involves missing keys, dubious tuning, and most of all, the fact that you will need to pay someone to move it.

But the larger issue is that pianos have apparently fallen out of favour. Clearly we have many more options for amusement than they did when a piano was the entertainment hub of the house, but I can’t help but think that the demise of the piano is yet another bellwether of the decline and fall of civilized culture as we know it. Here are some reasons why pianos deserve more respect.

• Pianos are perhaps the only practical demonstration of the use of physics. I personally have not had many occasions to trot out my vast physics knowledge gained in Grade 10, but some Italian guy called Bartolomeo Christofori figured out how to do something useful with it. Apparently there is a fundamental mechanical problem of piano design because the hammer that gets activated when you hit a key has to strike the string, but not remain in contact with it because this would interfere with the resonance of the sound. The hammer must also return to its rest position without bouncing violently. Mr. Christofori bent physics to his will to give us a piano that works. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that if we give up on pianos we are also giving up on the usefulness of physics.

• Back in the day before the turntable, it fell to the lady of the house to spin the tunes via the piano keyboard to give everyone something to do after dinner. This required lots of skill beyond knowing how to play, including a good memory, the knack of choosing an appropriate repertoire for an audience and the ability to sit on a piano seat for extended periods of time. After dinner (or in many cases, during dinner) entertainment now consists of earphones and laptops or tablets, as everyone consumes his or her preferred visual and audio distraction from the real world. I defy anyone who thinks this is an improvement.

• Many of us took piano lessons as a child for at least three or four months or however long it took for our parents to succumb to the torture of getting us to practice and listening to the endless repetition of scales and beginner piano pieces that bare little resemblance to anything anyone might want to listen to over and over. Piano lessons were also part of the larger realm of music education. These days it isn’t at all necessary to learn anything about music to create it because all you need to do is locate snippets on the internet and combine them together. But I’m not quarreling with the advances the worldwide web has brought. My real beef is that if piano lessons go the way of the dodo they are yet one more thing we needed to endure that new generations do not.

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Brush up your Shakespeare

Posted by Marlinee on Apr 27, 2014 in Middle Age

Apparently Shakespeare turned 450 this week. This event went unheralded by Google (which thought Earth day was a more worthy doodle of the day), so there is of course some doubt as to whether this anniversary actually took place. Much like there is still some doubt that Shakespeare actually wrote everything that bears his name. But let’s put aside these petty controversies.

Shakespeare is one of those cultural touch points that is part of virtually everyone’s (at least in the English speaking world) experience. Or in fact, everyone’s shared trauma, because no man in the history of the world has inspired such universal loathing. The only people who got out alive in my high school were in the ‘non-academic’ stream and got to watch West Side Story instead of reading Henry IV Part 2.

I have many bones to pick with Shakespeare. Here are some of them.

The soliloquies. A soliloquy is defined as “an utterance by a person who is talking to himself or is otherwise disregardful of any hearers present”. And here lies the essence of my problem: generally, the only person interested in what someone who is talking to himself is himself. Also, for some reason, teachers of Shakespeare think that memorizing a soliloquy or two is essential to the process of understanding the play in question. I’d be happy to recite the first soliloquy by Prince Hal in Henry IV that I was forced to learn about 40 years ago. That’s because it is still taking up some of my brain cells, regardless of whether I could probably use them for something else, like remembering where I left my glasses.

The quotes.There are 2,810 Shakespeare quotes that have been catalogued. You probably know the top of the hit parade, like “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them” and “All that glistens is not gold.” And I have no quarrel with these. What bugs me about Shakespeare quotes are the misquotes that have taken on a life of their own. For example, the witches did not say “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” but “double, double toil and trouble”. This was supposedly Walt Disney’s fault, who thought he could re-write Shakespeare. Oh wait, I guess he did, rather successfully as I would bet a random poll of people on the street would quote Walt’s version rather than Will’s.

The words. We all know they talked a different breed of English back in the Shakespearian day. Some words have completely disappeared, while others mean something completely different. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” actually means ‘why are you’ not ‘where are you’ (see also, misquoting). But that’s not the worst part. For some reason people feel it is necessary to use what they think passes as a Shakespearian accent when appropriating his words. As well, Shakespeare felt the need to just make words up. About 2,200 of them at last count. Mr. Shakespeare, you are a cold-blooded arch-villain who has disheartened many a student’s eyeball. Good thing you are already dead or we’d have to assassinate you.

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Here comes the sun

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 23, 2014 in Middle Age

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.

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Private eyes are watching you

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 16, 2014 in Travels, Work

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.

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The Taxman

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 9, 2014 in Work

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.

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Plastic Ono Band

Posted by Marlinee on Feb 20, 2014 in Middle Age

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.

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Please Mr. Postman

Posted by Marlinee on Feb 17, 2014 in Houses, Middle Age

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.

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Hello, hello, is anybody out there?

Posted by Marlinee on Feb 2, 2014 in Work

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.

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Don’t sit under the apple tree

Posted by Marlinee on Jan 26, 2014 in Work

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.

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Let’s get physical

Posted by Marlinee on Jan 12, 2014 in Middle Age

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.

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