Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Secret House

"Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead." -- Benjamin Franklin

People love secrets because they represent the challenge of the unknown.  Many businesses depend on them.  Spies of all kinds are tasked to unravel them.  Even kids like to have a secret or two, such as a diary to record their innermost thoughts, or a special place to go and be alone for a while.

Part of my childhood imagination was built around superhero comics and spy movies.  I memorized the runic writing from the Tolkien novels and used it to write coded entries in my diary.  I invented pictoral codes and shared them with a few special friends so we could pass secret messages, which were delivered either by paper airplane or hidden in a prearranged location.

One of the best secrets of all came one summer from my friend Carlson.  He and another friend Yves had been delivering flyers along their route when they stumbled upon a kids' dream house.  This wasn't a mere tree house - Carlson had one in his back yard - but an actual house.  It was a raised bungalow with a property that looked out onto the river... and it was completely empty.  The occupants had departed at the end of June and left the place bare.  So it was an empty house, I remember arguing.  People move all the time.  But Carlson said with a gleam in his eyes, we could actually play at having a house.

I was skeptical until the two boys swore me to secrecy and then showed me what they meant.  We walked down to where the house was; we couldn't take our bikes because they would be noticed.  Then after making sure there was nobody watching, we scurried around the back of the house to a door that led into an unfinished part of the basement.  To my surprise the door wasn't locked, and we were able to slip inside.

We moved into the centre of the room to see a trapdoor set into the ceiling.  A few concrete blocks dragged over from a corner served as a stepladder to get high enough to open the trapdoor, and then we could clamber through and into the house itself.  The place was amazing, with hardwood floors, wide windows offering a magnificent river view, and even running water (it apparently hadn't yet been turned off by the town).

For three glorious weeks, the three of us would get together as often as we could and head down to our own private playhouse.  We all knew the risk we were taking, that if somebody were to see us and call the authorities we would be in big trouble.  But it never happened.

And then one day we arrived at the house to see a FOR SALE sign on the front lawn.  We glanced at each other and sighed dejectedly.  The sign meant that people would now be coming to see the house at any time.  If we happened to be playing inside we would likely have no warning before someone arrived, and we would be toast.  We had to give up our prize and move on.

Time went by, Yves moved away from the neighbourhood, Carlson and I grew up and lost touch with each other.  The house that had been our secret was demolished and a new house was built on the property.  But I never forgot it and I never told anybody.  Until now of course.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

If Time Travel Were Possible

"People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey... stuff." -- The Doctor

From childhood I've been fascinated by the idea of time travel.  My first exposure to the concept was the moment Superman turned back time in the 1978 Richard Donner film.  Later I got into superhero comics, in which several superheroes and villains travelled in time, usually with extreme consequences.  On television I enjoyed Voyagers and Quantum Leap.  Then I participated in a lengthy role-playing game campaign in which the main character was a being called a Time Elemental.

There have also been a number of movies featuring time travel by various methods.  The Time Machine, Time Bandits, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Star Trek IV The Voyage Home, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Timecop, 12 Monkeys, Star Trek First Contact.

And of course, there's the time travelling grand-master: Doctor Who.

All this leads to the question: what would happen if time travel were actually possible?  Who hasn't dreamed of going back in time to meet a deceased relative, to see dinosaurs up close, or to kill Hitler?

But let's be realistic for a moment.  Assuming that time travel was achievable, access to such technology would be limited to governments, military groups, and maybe scientists.  Not just anyone would be allowed to use such a powerful device.  Not to mention we'd probably have another Cold War as other developed countries tried to acquire the same technology in a kind of time-race.

There are many theories about what might happen if someone could travel in time.  There is a claim that the mere act of travelling in time would change reality, no matter what the person did.  Chaos theory postulates that a small change at one place can result in large differences later; in other words, one tiny misstep in history could devastate humanity as we know it.  Or nothing might happen at all: a person's presence at a particular time and place was meant to happen anyway.  We have no way of knowing.

There are other theoretical dangers too.  In a video game called Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack In Time, time travel technology was gifted to a race so they could better themselves.  However the technology was misused to the point where a tiny hole occurred in the fabric of space-time, causing the destruction of numerous planets.  In an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, it was discovered that the use of warp drive propulsion (which is effectively time travel) was causing damage to space-time.

We are three-dimensional beings.  No matter how intelligent we are, truly understanding the fourth dimension is most likely beyond us.  But we can still dream, right?

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

In the Cards

I recently reconnected with an old high school friend of mine; we met at some club or other but we quickly became bored with it and sat down to play a game of cards.  That forged a friendship that remained solid for several years until he graduated and moved out of the community.

In retrospect, I made many of my good friends while playing cards.  From Crazy Eights to Magic the Gathering, card games were a staple for most of my youth and well into adulthood.  There's something about a deck that seems magical, in that one never knows what's going to turn up next.

My brother taught me my first card games: Solitaire, then Crazy Eights, and later a type of double solitaire called Russian Bank.  My grandmother tried to teach me Hearts but she always beat me.  To this day I refuse to play any computerized form of the game because I believe that the computer cheats.  I learned many other games from various friends, some of which I still remember and some I've long forgotten.  But all of them were great fun.

For years Mom offered to teach me how to play Contract Bridge, but I settled on Cribbage instead when I found out that my grandfather had preferred it.  She was kind enough to buy me a copy of "According to Hoyle" which subsequently became well-used to the point of falling apart, matching my favourite deck of cards which was also showing signs of the abuse that was inflicted upon it during many games of Spit.

When Magic The Gathering came along, a whole new dimension opened up.  Not long after I began playing I heard of a group of people who met at a downtown coffee shop every Friday evening to play.  It was this group that helped me become the person that I am today, and its members remain my dear friends even though we all stopped playing the game years ago.

Today the only card game I play regularly is Steve Jackson's twisted RPG-based game called Munchkin, which is a great source of hilarity for me and my family.  However I still do occasionally enjoy a game of Solitaire just for old times' sake.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Country Dreams

"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness." ― John Muir

I left my first husband in 1999 after an extremely difficult relationship that ended with me having a nervous breakdown.  Believe it or not there is one thing that I miss about it: the trips to his family's cottage during the summer.  The two and a half hour drive to get there was worth it; the place was on a large lake that was virtually untouched by the rampant "industrial cottagers" that had taken over other lakes in the vicinity and turned them into crowded, noisy extensions of suburbia.

One of my favourite things to do at least once a season was to make the trek to what the residents called the "Lost Lake".  It had been created many years prior by beaver dams and had no name on any map that I looked at.  Its outlet was a small stream that emptied at one end of a beach that, at the time, was only accessible by boat.  A deer trail led into the woods from there, following the stream, which ended at the shore of the lake about a kilometer away.

The first time I saw the place I was captivated.  It looked like an unexplored jewel of a lake nestled in the hills.  Ducks congregated on the water and kingfishers gave their rattling calls as they dove to catch their meals.  At the right time of the season one could see various types of native wildflowers.  If one was quiet and very lucky one might even catch a glimpse of a deer or beaver.

I've felt fortunate that I've been able to see such magical places throughout my life, from my grandfather's remote fishing cabin to my aunt's restored farm house.  Family trips have taken me from the lakes of Cape Breton Island to the mountains of British Columbia.  So much beauty should be appreciated.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Treasure Hunting

Cutler Beckett: "You're mad."
Jack Sparrow: "Thank goodness for that because if I wasn't, this'd probably never work."

Like the pirates of old, I enjoy hunting for hidden treasures of various types.  When I was a child, my friends and I used to send coded messages to each other in order to figure out where our secret meeting place was going to be.  These days I could be researching a segment of previously unknown family history, or finding an important misplaced item.  Such things will bother me until the mystery is solved.

I've found another outlet in a technological treasure hunting game called Geocaching.  Here's how it works: somebody sets up a hidden container and publishes its geographical coordinates on the web site.  Then others use a GPS device to find those coordinates and search for the container in the vicinity.

The containers, known as Geocaches, can have many forms.  Some are as simple as a plastic container wrapped in camouflage-style tape and hung in a tree.  Others can be hidden inside a hollow log or disguised as a fake brick.  Some are so tiny that it takes expert eyes to find them.  Inside is a logbook, and if the cache is big enough, a number of trinkets.  If you take a trinket, it's advisable to leave one of equal value to replace it.  Then you sign the logbook, and put the container back where it was found.

After returning home, you log into the web site to tell the story of your hunt.  Some people just write short messages like "Found it, thank you!"  Others have longer and interesting adventures.  One of my personal favourites was a cache in a wooded area where I plowed my way through thigh-deep snow in order to reach it; I had elected to hunt that particular cache in the winter in order to avoid the mosquitoes.

There are more than two million Geocaches worldwide, so most likely some exist near you.  Happy hunting!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

How to Ruin Your Summer in 3 Easy Steps

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley." -- Sidney Sheldon

The school year will be over soon, and every year at this time I'm reminded of an incident that put the kibosh on my summer plans.  The summer after I finished high school should have been one of the best.  Despite various personal and social problems I had been having throughout the year, I had managed to graduate with a B average.  My parents were going on a trip for two weeks and I was to stay at my aunt's farm for the duration; I loved it there.

But unfortunately everything changed abruptly because of a series of stupid decisions I made.  I decided to write this so that others could learn from my mistakes.

Mistake #1. Have a crush on a boy.

During the latter half of the school year I had been routinely attending the school's chess club, and one of my more frequent opponents was a lanky boy named Chris.  We had a number of things in common and over time we developed an easygoing friendship.  Then began rumours that we were a couple, which was far from the truth, although I liked him and had invited him to join me on a few bike rides around the neighbourhood.  A few days after school ended I asked him to spend an afternoon biking, and he accepted.

Mistake #2. Make stupid moves while on a bike.

Chris and I met up to go on our bike ride, but another friend happened to show up and ask if I could fly kites with him in the park.  Graciously Chris agreed to accompany both of us to the park, where we had a grand time.  When it came time to leave, Chris and I departed together.  I rode my bike one-handed because I was carrying my rolled-up kite in the other hand.  Suddenly the kite started to slide out of my hand; instead of letting it drop so I could stop the bike safely, I brought it in front of me and tried to adjust my grip.  With my attention diverted, my front wheel hit the shoulder of the road.  I lost my balance and tipped over, and I instinctively held out both hands to block my fall.  A strange noise sounded from my right wrist, and my entire forearm felt like it had caught fire.

Mistake #3. Minimize the problem.

We made it back to my house, where I used one of my athletic straps to bind my wrist.  Gradually the pain subsided.  Maybe it wasn't serious... I hoped it wasn't serious.  When my parents arrived home from the store I explained that I had hurt myself, and naturally my mother immediately insisted on getting an doctor's opinion.  Dad put my kite and my bike away, Chris took his leave, and Mom took me to the emergency room.  It wasn't very crowded and we saw a triage nurse relatively quickly; I told her that I believed my wrist was sprained.  Mom admonished me, saying that I should have said that it was possibly fractured, because that might make a difference as to how long we would have to wait.

Time passed, my wrist was evaluated, X-rays were taken, and it turned out that it was indeed broken.  And it was broken in a such a way that would make it difficult to heal; they had to slowly (and painfully) angle my wrist so that the bones were aligned before putting a cast on.

I was silent the entire way home.  I knew this whole thing was my fault.  It wouldn't have happened had I made better choices.  With a cast on my arm for six weeks I would be unable to go swimming, unable to go biking, and unable to roam as freely around my aunt's property as I was expecting.  Worst of all, I had made myself look like a fool in front of Chris.  My summer was effectively ruined.

Chris and I spoke on the phone a few times over the summer, but once September came around and we began junior college, we couldn't see each other regularly and we drifted apart.  Any relationship I might have hoped for never materialized.

So always be careful what you do when school ends.  Because one stupid move (or three) can really mess up your summer.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Tortus: The Story of a Sailboat

When I was ten years old, my parents purchased their first sailboat. It was a 23-foot Olympic Dolphin with a turquoise-blue hull.  A maintenance check by a well-known local boatbuilder showed that it was in excellent condition, and my family promptly became members of the community yacht club.

We frequently spent our summer vacations at my maternal grandfather's home in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  Determined to enjoy the boat to the fullest, my father came up with a plan to put the boat on its trailer and haul it behind his large car down to Fredericton.  However, executing that plan turned out to be quite an adventure in itself.

The day before we were due to leave, we arrived at the yacht club early to take down the boat's mast and rigging, and secure it to the boat with special wooden holders.  That done, the boat was motored over to the launch ramp where the trailer was waiting, already hitched on to the back of my father's car.  Dad reversed the car down the ramp to lower the trailer into the water enough so that the boat could be floated onto the trailer supports and then tied down.

Now was the moment of truth: Dad put the car in forward gear and started to pull the trailer and boat out of the water.  Nothing moved.  Mom and I visually checked around to make sure that there was nothing that could possibly impede the trailer's progress, but we couldn't see anything.  Dad tried again, gunning the car's engine, but the trailer stayed put.

We couldn't believe it.  Was the boat too heavy?  The boat's previous owner had said that he'd hauled it on the trailer many times without incident.  Was the car not strong enough?  It was a large Oldsmobile station wagon with an 8-cylinder engine.  Dad was certain that the car should have been able to do it.  What was wrong?

At that point the Bosun (the man in charge of the club's maintenance and supply) showed up with his 4x4 and offered to help.  He got out a chain with a hook on the end, which he used to connect his vehicle to the front end of Dad's car.  With such combined power, they should theoretically be able to pull up almost any boat in the club.

Engines rumbled.  Metal screeched.  Then Mom screamed for them to stop.  When the two men secured their vehicles and came to investigate, the reason for Mom's panic became obvious.  The trailer hitch assembly on the back of Dad's car was bent out of shape, warped from the force of the two engines pulling on it.  The hook that the Bosun had used was damaged as well.  What was going on here?  What kind of trailer could resist being hauled like this?

The club manager came around to take a look and confer with Dad and the Bosun.  Then I saw the Bosun clap one hand on his face and begin to laugh.  Apparently what had happened was this: when the trailer was initially lowered into the water it had slipped off the edge of the launch ramp and become stuck on the bottom.  Due to the murky water in the harbour nobody saw this.  So at the moment the only way to move that trailer was to remove the boat and use the club's floating hoist to crank the trailer back up.

Dad grumbled angrily at this delay but there was no other option.  He unhooked his car and drove it away to have the hitch assembly repaired. In the meantime the club crew freed the trailer, and then they positioned the trailer underneath the club's crane.  The boat was towed over to the crane, lifted out of the water, placed neatly onto the trailer, and secured.  All we needed now was for Dad to return with the car and all would be well.  Maybe.

Once Dad had arrived with a newly-repaired trailer hitch on the car (and a big bill in his pocket) it was a simple thing to connect the trailer to the car and make sure that everything was good to go.  At this point Mom realized that she needed her purse, which had been left on the docks while the boat was being dealt with.  I grabbed it and passed it to her, but in my haste I let go before she had a proper hold on it.  The purse fell onto the dock, and since Mom had carelessly left it open, half its contents spilled into the water. Immediately I knelt down and grabbed what I could, but Mom's sunglasses and car keys sank to the bottom of the harbour.

After Mom berated me for a few minutes, she resolved to find her missing items.  We all piled into the car and towed the boat home with no problems, thankfully.  Then Mom changed into her swimsuit, borrowed my goggles and a towel, and we headed back to the club.

The Bosun helpfully tied a bright yellow rope onto a weight and dropped it beside the spot where the items had fallen, in order to mark the place.  We knew that the water was only about four feet deep at that spot, but it was so murky that we could see nothing from the surface.  Mom sat on the edge of the dock and slipped into the water - or rather, she tried.  There was a nail protruding from the side of the dock that nobody had noticed.  It caught the bottom of Mom's swimsuit and ripped a large hole in it.  Mortified, Mom pulled herself up and quickly wrapped the towel around herself, then scurried into the club's washroom.  Dad and I made another trip home to fetch her spare swimsuit for her to change into.

For her second attempt Mom walked down the nearby ramp into the water, put the swim goggles on, and made her way out to where the items should have been.  Even with the goggles and the yellow rope guiding the way, she couldn't see anything; the water was just too cloudy.  After a few moments of scrounging blindly through the mud on the bottom, she came up and admitted defeat.  Her sunglasses and keys (not to mention her other now-useless swimsuit) would all have to be replaced.

As for the boat, we did get it safely down to Fredericton for our summer vacation... but that is another story entirely.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Demolition by Neglect

There's a phenomenon that has been happening in my city for decades that's known as "demolition by neglect".  What happens is that a building of historical significance is vacated due to underuse or lack of money to keep it open.  The building's owners, the city, heritage groups, and developers can't or won't agree on what to do with the property.  The fate of the building gets stuck in limbo while nobody takes care of it and it deteriorates from the elements.  Eventually the structure is deemed unsafe and/or unsalvageable and is demolished.

Notable examples of this have been:

The Seville.  A large theatre built in 1929 on one of the city's main streets, whose interior had an elaborate Spanish theme with the ceiling painted to resemble the night sky.  A redesign in 1950 saw most of the interior decor removed but the facade remained intact.  In 1985 the building was closed supposedly due to a spike in rent prices.  Over time the exterior became compromised to the point where it had to be demolished in 2010.  The location now is a condo project.

Van Horne Mansion.  A large greystone house near downtown, it was originally built in 1869 for the president of the Merchant's Bank of Canada.  In 1889 the president of the CPR Sir William Van Horne purchased the property, and it remained in his family thereafter.  In the early 1970s family squabbles over the ownership and maintenance of the property prompted the city to step in.  Despite public outcry, the mayor at the time declared that the house couldn't be preserved and had it demolished in the middle of the night.  A hotel now stands on the site.  (It was believed by many that the real reason for the demolition was that Van Horne was American and not a French Quebecer.)

Redpath House.  Built in 1886 in the Queen Anne style of architecture, this was the home of the wealthy industrialist John Redpath.  In 1986 the property was purchased by the Sochaczevski family but subsequently abandoned despite promises and court orders to maintain the house.  Heritage groups and the city fought for years over the need to preserve the property, meanwhile one wing of the house was destroyed without a permit in 2002.  Finally, after a provincial government minister tabled a report saying there was "nothing to save", the building was demolished in March 2014.  A condo development is planned for the site.

This kind of thing is happening not just here but in other cities as well: the core of my father's hometown looks nothing like it did when he was a boy.  Almost all of the older buildings have been destroyed and replaced with new ones.

There far are too many examples of old buildings being lost because of petty squabbles, shortsightedness, and disregard for heritage.  To help save what's left, people need to get more involved in their communities and pressure the people in charge to take a close look at what they need to save for the enjoyment of future generations.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Bigotry is Alive and Well

A good friend of ours whom we have known for many years (I'll call him Mike), is an intelligent, caring, and self-assured man.  A little over two years ago he came out with his preference for an alternative lifestyle, and received support from the majority of his family and friends.

Recently he went to a local hobby store to sell some of his collectible cards.  The owner had evaluated the cards and was about to make an offer when he noticed Mike's rainbow bracelet.  Suddenly the offer was off the table and the owner claimed to no longer be interested in the cards because they were "in too good condition".

Seriously?  Anyone who knows anything about collectibles knows that their value is commensurate with the condition that they're in.  How could this guy judge the condition of the cards by simply looking at a rainbow bracelet?  But the real question is, what should it matter if a potential customer is wearing anything with a rainbow pattern?

We're living in the 21st century and discrimination of this sort shouldn't exist, but unfortunately it does.  Police officers judge people based on the colour of their skin.  Civil servants refuse to serve people who don't speak the proper language.  People who wear clothing that falls outside the norm are shunned.

I am proud of the fact that I've broken the generational cycle of bigotry.  Once when my grandmother was hospitalized she refused to allow a black orderly to attend her.  My father painted all Muslims with the same brush and supported the "send them back to their country" idea.  I could have ended up the same way, until I reached high school and began to see that interracial or even same-sex relationships were no different than any other.  Who were we to tell someone who they could or could not spend time with?

We might never be able to completely eradicate discrimination but we should at least be more understanding toward our fellow humans.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Job-Hunting Tricks

I've been looking for work since my daughter started school full-time, but in two years I've only had one interview.  My husband lost his job this past February, so now the search for employment has become urgent.

Younger people have said that job hunting these days is different from 30 years ago, but in some respects it's the same.  You almost need an "in" or you have to know someone within the industry/company just to be considered.  In a tough job market, companies tend to go with what they know, or they look for proven talent.  The rest of us are left chipping away at a large wall.

Most companies use software to screen applications and resumes, which means most applications are not even seen by a human.  In that environment, you need somehow to connect with humans directly, to make an impression and to sell yourself a little.  That's something I have never been comfortable doing, but nevertheless, employers will hire people they like, in whom they have confidence.  We need somehow to get on their "list".

The bulk of corporations in the public sector still screen manually.  However only those chosen get a response; they do not correspond with other applicants to tell them what happened.  From a potential employee perspective, it's a very unsatisfying process.  If you are chosen, then you might be sent for additional testing (language testing, personality profile, aptitude testing) before being put on a list to be interviewed.  The interview process itself is pass/fail, with successful interviewees being put on an eligibility list.  Who gets hired from that list is subject to additional considerations.  It's a long process without any guarantee.

What a lot of people do now is to create an online presence and market themselves that way, such as through Twitter or LinkedIn.  Through that you might get lucky to forge a connection that will lead you to opportunities.  But even that is not enough.  Your credentials often have to be stellar in order to be admissible, especially within a competitive field.  In the short term, if there's no paid work, one could always volunteer at something in order to get a bit of a work history, or to work for folks who at least appreciate your contributions, even if they are unpaid.

Looking ahead, the younger generation will have to be entrepreneurial; this means always marketing, constantly networking, and constantly looking for the next opportunity, just as if it were a business.  My nephews for example are smarter than me at this.  All worked summer jobs through school.  Their part time jobs helped them to get more substantial ones, now they have jobs waiting for them at graduation.  They networked, seized opportunities, and proved themselves.  Now they have good resumes and references and may actually be in demand.  The trick is to have a rep for something.

Now if only I could benefit from my own advice.