broken parabolic




"Nulla dies sine linea - but there may well be weeks."
Walter Benjamin, Post No Bills

Why I Love Shooting

23 May 2013

A lot of people don't get me at first. I'm not a big guy. I don't look particularly outdoorsy. I can't really grow a respectable beard and I'm a vegetarian. So they don't get it when they find out I've got a safe full of rifles. Sadly, there are a lot of people who can't conceive of shooting as a sport in itself. It never occurred to them that a person would ever pull a trigger other than to kill something or someone. They get a confused look and say things like "You mean, just target practice and stuff?" as if shooting at a target could not possibly be anything but "practice" for "the real thing". Which, of course, is killing something or someone.

This is what happens when you live in a country that is insistently selective in its coverage of things like the Olympics. The shooting sports have had an Olympic presence for decades, and Canada has athletes in virtually every shooting discipline. But Biathlon is the only one that you'll ever see on television; the glorious CBC simply refuses to provide coverage of any other sport involving a firearm. Most people here are completely oblivious to events like 50-meter Smallbore, Free Pistol, 10-meter Air Rifle/Pistol, and all of the shotgun events. So I guess it's no surprise that they can't see shooting as an end in itself, or a shooter as a dedicated and highly disciplined athlete. Their entire exposure to firearms has been what they see in movies, what they see on the news, and hunters they happen to know. Guns are for killing. That's all they can see.

I wonder if they would have the same opinion of knives, had they never encountered a chef or cooked in a kitchen themselves. Or baseball bats, had they never seen the sport. The javelin and the discus, both now regular events at any Track and Field day, began as weapons of war, yet neither of them has achieved the same reputation as the firearm. Granted, that's probably because no one uses a javelin or a discus to kill anyone anymore. But that might just be because humanity invented easier ways of doing it.

Kelly Bachand of Top Shot fame put it well when he said "In the hands of an angry person, it's a weapon. In my hands, it's a piece of sporting equipment." I suspect that many competitive shooters have never killed so much as a gopher in their lives. I attended a shooting match outside of Edmonton as a spectator once, and Lynda Hare, the Canadian Pistol Champion who I have the pleasure of knowing personally, had this to say when I asked her why she comes out for little competitions: "We're shooters. We love to shoot." Being a shooter wasn't a means to an end. It was a part of her identity. She didn't shoot because she was a soldier, and that involves shooting. Or because she was a hunter. She was a competitor in a sport.

The competitive shooting world is, of course, the other end of the spectrum. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. I don't hunt, and I'm not one of the crazy paramilitary types we're starting to see frighteningly more of here in the western world. But I do find Olympic-style shooting more regulated and restrictive than I like. Olympic shooters train to make one shot, at the same distance, at the same target, under pretty much the same conditions, over and over again. Maybe I just don't have the attention span for that. I have all kinds of respect for it, but it's not quite my cup of proverbial tea. I prefer what I might call "practical shooting". I want to be able to pick up a plain rifle, without the bells and whistles, and hit anything I can see within reasonable range and under virtually any reasonable conditions.

The natural question, then, is "Why? Why develop an ability that you have no intention of using for any tangible purpose?" I'm not a hunter, and probably never will be. I don't anticipate that I'll ever need to defend myself with a firearm and I have no aspirations of becoming a military sniper. And I'm not venturing into the world of competitive shooting.

It was a question I had to ask myself, because for a long time, I didn't fully understand why shooting appealed to me as much as it did. I think I started to understand it one day at the range when I encountered three guys shooting from the table a few stations down from me. They were gathered around a semi-automatic Ruger SR-22 decked out with a bipod, red-dot scope, and a 25-round magazine. And it struck me that they were firing this thing sitting down, rifle rested with the bipod on the shooting table, looking through the red-dot, at a target a whopping twenty-five metres away. How this could have been in any way challenging I couldn't figure. They seemed to just enjoy squeezing the trigger and making an impressive pile of brass casings next to the table, but they couldn't hold a group to save their lives. This, to me, was not real shooting.

Which got me to thinking about what "real shooting" actually was. And it was then that I started to figure out why I love it. So I'll give you the closest thing to a personal definition of "real shooting" that I can come up with:

Real shooting means taking a good look at what is going on around you and within you, then making very deliberate decisions about what to do and how to do it. Know your rifle. Know your cartridge. Range your target and dope the wind. Put every part of your body in just the right place, breathe in just the right way, and move the trigger along exactly the right path. This is shooting. Until you strive to do these things, to make these decisions, to achieve that control, you're not really shooting. You're just making holes with a gun.

There you have it. And therein lies the reason I love it. Rifle shooting, as a pursuit, mirrors the things in life I have always struggled with. The discipline and awareness involved underscore for me what living well looks like. It's far too easy to go through life not really paying attention to what's going on around us or within us, and just doing what we've always done, or seen done by others, instead of actually making deliberate decisions. It's easy to watch things occur and not really notice how our bad habits led to them. It's easy to let life happen to us instead of living it. In short, it's easy to make holes with a gun. Shooting, however, is much more difficult. And much more rewarding.

Rifleslinger's Razor states "Do not blame equipment for deficiencies in performance that could otherwise be explained by faulty technique." Of course, this is really a rehashing of the popular adage about the poor workman. But you will not find a bigger batch of excuse-makers than riflemen (forgive the gender-exclusive language, but "riflepeople" sounds ridiculous). It's difficult and tedious and a blow to the ego to really examine the way you delivered the shot: "Was my natural point of aim correct? Was my trigger pull smooth, or did I jerk it? Was the sight picture right at the moment the shot broke? Was my elbow in the right place, and was my cheek weld consistent? Did I wait too long after I stopped breathing to bring the trigger through? Did I estimate the range correctly? Was I right about the wind speed and direction?" Many people who pick up a rifle never even think to ask questions like this. As a friend of mine once said about fishing, "It's about doing a lot of small things right". And many times in life I've failed to ask similarly important questions about how I dealt with everything from money to people. But those questions need to be asked, because it all matters. All of it. It all comes together, and you send the bullet on its way and it's out of your hands but the end result will be entirely your doing.

And the feeling is incredible. When you've gauged the wind and estimated the range and double checked every elbow and foot and finger and thumb, and the shot breaks and the bullet connects precisely because you did all the small things right - then you know, for a moment, what a well-lived life can feel like. And maybe that drives me, motivates me, gives me the wherewithal to endure that self-scrutiny and that ego-bruising questioning that living well, loving well, being well demands.

I'm not an expert. Honestly, I'm not that great a marksman. I miss a lot of shots, both with a rifle and without. But I'm learning, and I'm figuring out how to ask the right questions, and to me, that means that I'm not just making holes with a gun anymore. I'm actually shooting now.

Both with a rifle and without.

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First Trip to Ukee

11 April 2013

Okay, so it wasn't actually my first trip to Ucluelet. I've been there several times before, in fact. But it was the first time since we'd bought the house.

The trip started in panic. Friday was the completion date of the sale, and I was scheduled to fly from Edmonton to Comox at 1:10 that afternoon. Possession was set for noon on Saturday, and I had an inspector coming from Nanaimo, across the island, booked to meet me at the house to write up an initial scope of work for contractors. The trouble was that somehow, we had dropped the ball on lining up insurance on the place. So I had spent much of Thursday on the phone to insurance companies, underscoring the urgency of the situation and waiting for my cell to ring as the broker tried madly to find someone to underwrite the place. The situation was complicated by the amount of work that needs to be done there: the hot water tank is garbage, the furnace is ancient, the shop out back is in disrepair, and the place needs mold remediation because the renters who lived there before us never bothered to tell anyone that everything in the place that carries water leaks. We knew this going in, and of course it was all factored into the price we paid. But insurance companies get very uncomfortable with this stuff. Also, currently living in Alberta but trying to insure a place in British Columbia makes the policy even more intricate. And I needed the broker to get it done in a matter of hours so the deal could actually get done, and the keys could be handed over to me on Saturday, so I could let the inspector in, and so on.

I was at Edmonton International, checking in for the flight, when the call finally came. The insurance was arranged and in place; someone had broken the three-way tie of "you can't insure it until you fix it, you can't fix it until you buy it, and you can't buy it until you insure it". The deal would go ahead. The lawyers were happy, the banks were happy, and the realtor was instructed to hand over the keys.

The flight to Comox was uneventful enough, and I managed to split a cab with another guy going from Comox airport into Courtney so I could pick up my rental car (it was outrageously expensive to rent from the airport). They put me into a little Dodge Dart and sent me on my way.

It took two and a half hours to get to Ucluelet, including a quick stop in Port Alberni for gas. The little Dart proved gutless on the straightaways but nimble on the turns, and anyone who has ever driven Highway 4 across Vancouver Island to Ucluelet or Tofino can tell you that "nimble" is about the best you can have. I sang along at the top of my lungs to Mumford & Sons, Radiohead, The Naked and Famous, alone and uninhibited in the car, and feeling nearly alone on the Island itself for as many others as I encountered.

It was cloudy and rainy when I arrived, and the town was eerily quiet. I had never seen it in the off-season before, without all of the bustling tourists and seasonal workers and surfers. It was just past 6pm and practically everything was already closed. Harbour Pizza Factory was still open, so I popped in there, starving, and managed to find a fairly passable greek salad. Just across the street from Harbour Pizza Factory stands St. Aidan on the Hill, the old Anglican church (the same church Clark Kent stands and stares at in the trailer for Man of Steel, part of which was shot in Ucluelet). I finished my salad and walked out onto the street to get a few photos of the church, which I've always found a little magnificent, as decrepit as it has become.

I made a stop at Big Beach, only five hundred meters or so straight down Matterson Drive from the back of my new property, rainy as it was. Big Beach isn't really a beach in the conventional sense. The shoreline is rocky, not sandy, but you do have a view straight into the Pacific, and you can watch the waves break on the bigger rocks further out. Between Harbour Pizza and Big Beach, I noticed that the rain didn't seem to stop people from doing what they do. I noticed quite a few out walking, or walking dogs, or with shopping bags. Still not many, since it's a small tourist town in its off-season, but enough to convince me that we, too, would get accustomed to life in the rain.

I checked into the hostel at the edge of town, met Peter the manager, got my linens and picked a bed in the dorm room. I would be alone in the hostel for the night, a far cry from last August when I had gone out for the inspection the first time we'd tried to buy the place. There wasn't a lot to do. Peter gave me a key so I could come in when I liked, and I put on my raincoat and walked out to Peninsula Road, leaving the Dart behind.

It's a twenty minute walk or so, past the gas stations and the hardware store, past the Canadian Princess, up the hill to the liquor store on the corner of Bay Street and Peninsula. Then you turn left and walk down Bay, almost right to the water of the harbour, and there on your left is the Eagle's Nest Marina Pub. This would turn into my regular evening haunt, as I was in Ukee alone with not much else to do after suppertime.

The bartender's name was Krista, and as it turned out, her day job was as the first mate on a whale-watching ship with Jamie's Whale Watching. The pub wasn't busy, so we had a fair bit of time to talk. It's interesting to see the subtle shift in attitude people get when they find out that you're not just a tourist. Suddenly they seem to want to help you. Once I told her I'd bought a house in Ukee and would be moving there, she was instantly ready to tell me anything I wanted to know about the place. Which I appreciated, since things get done differently out there at the edge of the world.

For instance, to set up cable and internet, you go to Barry's Pharmacy. I would not have guessed that.

I had some time Saturday morning to just go look around. Grabbed breakfast at the Barkley Cafe and drove off to find Little Beach. It's more of a "beach" than Big Beach, in that it has a lot more sand and less rock, but it's so far into a little bay that there really aren't any waves left by the time they meet the shoreline. I checked out the Co-op, taking special note of their gluten-free options, and picked up some groceries to eat at the hostel. Then I went back to the Barkley again, grabbed a second cup of coffee, and went across the street to St. Aidan's, sitting on the bench beside it. You're at the top of the hill when you're right next to the church, with a view out over the Visitor's Centre, the Aquarium, and the Whiskey Dock right into the Inlet. I just sat and sipped my coffee and counted down the minutes until the appointed possession time, when I would be handed the keys to the new house, responsible for it, committed to this venture that still seems at the edge of reason. I had sunshine for those few minutes, on a day in which the weather would change on me six or seven times. We sometimes say in Edmonton that if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes; this, it turns out, applies far, far less in Edmonton than in Ucluelet.

I arrived at the house right at noon. The inspector was already there, along with a contractor the realtor had sent. The realtor showed up a few minutes later. I had her take some pictures as I turned the key in the lock for the first time, then walked inside, not really sure what to expect.

The last time I had seen the house was last August. Then, there were still four or five people living in the place, and they didn't seem to possess the faintest spark of responsibility. Despite being told that there would be a house inspection at a given time, they had thrown a party the night before. There were three or four people eating cold pizza and drinking beer and watching skateboarding videos on the couch in the living room while the inspector and I went through the whole house, stereo blaring the whole time. In one of the lower bedrooms, the floor was nowhere to be seen for the mass of clothes and dishes and whatever else.

It had been virtually emptied since. There was still the odd item here or there, but nothing compared to what it was months ago. In fact, the place didn't look that bad. Both the inspector and the contractor said they had expected it to be a lot worse. Given that there had been many times in the purchasing process that my wife and I had wondered if we hadn't made the biggest mistake of our lives, to see the place emptied out and fixable was a relief.

The inspector took air samples. I chatted with the contractor about ideas for the place, then went out to the shop to talk to the gentleman who, in exchange for maintaining the yards, has been parking an old car he's restoring there. There were so many details. There is a lot of general junk left on the property, and I'll have to sift through it. Dealing with the yard will be its own special project, even after all of the work that this gentleman has put into it (the yard, like the house, is now in far better shape than it was last August). The joy of new ownership did not come without its own dose of dread of the work that lies ahead. The inspector was writing a scope of work to hand to the mold remediation company. The sheer number of items, walls, or fixtures in the house that he was marking as "remove and replace" was intimidating.

We all left after a while. I went back to the hostel and had some soup, then drove out to Wickaninnish Beach and walked out to the water. It was cloudy and raining (unlike in the picture, which was taken the next day). I looked up and down the long stretch of sand and driftwood, but there was not another human soul in sight. I was alone with the Pacific. A strong wind came in off the angry ocean, and the waves were more violent than serene. It was cold, but not freezing. I didn't stay too long. It seemed like I had a lot more to do, but I couldn't figure out what to do next. I was all-in with a shaky hand now, and still reeling from the knowledge of it.

A bachelor party from Victoria showed up at the Eagle's Nest that night, keeping Krista on her toes. Apparently she makes a mean Caesar. At one point, they all were prepared to toast the groom, and, having sent a shot down the bar to me for good measure, thought it would be fun to see what I had to say as a toast. So I said "Here's to whatever it is you're doing right now, which looks as though it will turn into a really, really good time in... ninety-minutes or so." Everyone laughed. In the half-hour or so that followed, I heard numerous references to my ninety-minute figure and suddenly realized that though I thought I was merely predicting, in reality, I was goal-setting on their behalf. Not long after, they all left for the cabin they were renting, at which they apparently had plenty more alcohol that they had already paid for and felt they really should put to good use.

What struck me most was that I had been in Ukee for just over twenty-four hours now and had owned property there for nine, and already, I felt like I was the local and these boys from down-Island were the visitors. I had not expected to feel that way so soon, and a part of me really thought that I had no business feeling that way, but the sensation was there nonetheless. Maybe it was simply the fact that the bartender knew my name and didn't know theirs. But whatever the cause, Ukee was starting to feel familiar, like a normal backdrop for my life.

I left the Nest early that night, and the next morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and gluten-free toast, headed into Tofino, a half-hour's drive away, for church. St. Columba is a little Anglican/United church, beautifully constructed in the old style and well-maintained, right in the heart of the town of Tofino, and is the only Anglican parish in the area. Like our own parish here in Edmonton, they're looking for a minister, so they have interim priests and lay people doing the job. We had attended a service there back in July, and a couple of the parishioners there remembered me, and that I was a machinist, which was encouraging. The service was taken from the Book of Alternative Services, and though I'm used to the Book of Common Prayer, it was familiar enough. Reverend Dianne spoke on the topic of the gospel reading for the day, which was the account of Thomas after the resurrection. As so many sermons seem to have been since we first started this whole moving-to-the-island endeavor, it seemed apropos. It is through our doubts, she said, that God strengthens us and deepens our faith. Thank God for Thomas, she said. Because without him, the Gospels might be extremely disheartening. If we felt we were expected to live without doubt, none of us could ever feel like we measured up. Thomas doubted, and Jesus did not scold him, but met him in his doubt. And he was then the first to see the truth of things, the nature of Jesus, and confess: "My Lord, and my God!"

And the weekend had surely been filled with doubts. One might have even said it was the theme. Would the insurance come through? Would the sale go okay, and would I get the keys, or would the trip be a waste? Would the house be worse than we'd left it last summer? Will the repairs cost more than we have? Will we get a renter? Will my wife be alright out here on her own with the kids while I'm still working in Edmonton? Will my older boy, who has had a tough year, make friends out here? Will I be able to make enough to support us out here? Most of these doubts remain, to varying degrees. But as I've said many times, there's exactly one certainty about our moving to Ucluelet: If we don't try it, we'll regret not trying. We're sure of that. But everything else is uncertain.

On the way back to Ukee, I took the turn inland marked by the sign for the landfill and followed the road based on something I'd heard from someone, somewhere, who and when I couldn't recall. But after dodging more potholes than I thought the Dart could survive, I found what they call "The Pacific Rim Rifle Range", indicated by little more than a hand-written and laminated piece of paper tacked to a tree at a fork in the road. It's basically a part of an old mine, a sheer rock face that provides an unquestionable backstop, with a row of rocks spread before it to create an identifiable firing line. Perhaps only forty meters from the line to the rock face, but it would do for rimfire shooting just fine, and the site itself is surrounded by forest.

I stopped again at Wickaninnish. Sunday was a beautiful day; windy, but sunny. Wick was nearly empty again, and I moved on to Florencia Bay. There I found a dozen surfers or so in the water, and quite a few people on the beach. Florencia Bay might be one of my favourite places on earth, I think. One of the surfers started to tell me the things about the area that the tourists just don't seem to get told: where to get fresh cheese, who in the area grows organic greens, where the better trails are. I ran into the same surfer at the Barkley later that afternoon as I looked over my photos from the day.

I headed out later to Amphitrite Lighthouse, parking my car in the lot at the trailhead and starting the short hike. On the way, I was provided with views of Barkley Sound and the islands to the south that themselves could make one utter the Confession of Thomas. Creation is just more apparent out there than it is here in the city. A greater, fuller, wondrous variety, huge trees and rugged coastline, all manner of creature great and small, from bears to the iconic slugs of the Vancouver Island rain forests.

I hiked to the lighthouse and stood in front of it, then texted my wife to look at the webcam. I waved. She saw me. My boy sent me a text that said "Great job, dad!" and I headed back to the car, stopping on the trail only to photograph one of said slugs.

Lee was the man tending the bar at the Nest for my last night in Ukee. It was a discount night (half price draught and burgers), and a well-known offer among the locals, apparently. Two of the staff from the Barkley showed up, and since I'd seen them probably six times in the previous two days, we recognized each other and met fairly easily. I had hoped to meet as many people as I could in those few days, and I think that went pretty well.

Monday morning was another gorgeous day, and it killed me to leave. I stopped by the house once more for another look, grabbed coffee for the road (from a hungover barista I'd met the night before), and said bye-for-now to Ukee, looking long at St. Aidan's as I passed it.

It was hard to believe, as I drove back to Comox, that I will be back there in only weeks. It's still hard to believe. Edmonton seems so grey and cold to me now, though I know the summer here will be hotter than in Ukee. And I'm still scared of all the reno work and expense and uncertainty.

But I'm all-in now. So I guess I'll get moving.

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But In Thy Dark Streets Shineth

23 December 2012

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie...

Like so many other families, we have a creche, a nativity set that we assemble every year at Christmas and display somewhere in the house. You see quite a range of these, varying in size and style, from small and realistic to large and cartoony to medium-ish and impressionistic. I've always preferred those that leaned toward the realistic look, perhaps because I just found it easier to connect real-looking figures to a real event than cartoony or abstract ones. The vague forms never really made their point with me, never really moved me to contemplate the significance of the scene they were very vaguely depicting. This, I imagine, is a simple matter of taste.

When I was growing up, my family had a creche that my dad had built before I was born. It was made in three sections and entirely of wood, none of it sanded. This latter detail gave it a rough-hewn character, little grains and splinters perceivable with every touch, the coarseness of the materials visible to the eye even through the dark brown paint and making the whole model immediately believable as a stable for livestock. The detail was intricate, including little support beams and two ladders to the hayloft above the main section, and a completely shingled roof. I can't imagine how long it must have taken my dad to cut all of those little shingles.

It sat in the same place every year, on top of the upright piano that dominated the corner of the living room and that both my sister and I played daily. It was impossible not to gaze into it any time I sat down at the instrument, and I remember staring at the plastic molded figurines for what felt like hours sometimes, imagining what that night must have been like two thousand years ago, wrestling with the tension between the enormity of the event and the humility and quiet of the scene in which it resided.

What really gave the whole creche its impact was a little piece of ingenuity my dad had cobbled together: a tiny incandescent light bulb, soldered to a DC power adapter that had come from who knows what. The bulb was twist-tied to the "ceiling" of the stable, right at the back, and glowed with a soft golden cast that seemed to mimic firelight, just enough to illuminate the whole space of the stable when most of the other lights in the room were out.

Between the figurines, the unfinished character of the wood, and that ethereal light, I couldn't help but stare. A beautiful event had been given an evocative and elegant tribute in this humble depiction my dad had built.

It is that same creche that sits in my living room now. The figurines have had to be replaced, though I'm not unhappy with the ones we were able to find. My wife seemed to realize very quickly the significance of this creche to me, and she has always given its assembly its due importance in the Christmas decorating. My first son, now five and a half, has grown up with it, just as I did. My youngest, now just two and half months, probably hasn't yet noticed it.

But last year as we were putting it away, that old DC adapter was dropped, and the decades-old plastic casing shattered. I knew it couldn't be made to work anymore. But I didn't think much of it until this year when I set it up anew.

It was wrong. The wood was the same, the figurines, though relatively new, were familiar enough. But without that light, it was not what it ought to have been. The nativity should not be dark; it should not exist entirely in shadow. And it was not simply that the scene was missing something, but rather that the absence of light made it something that it should not be. It was an event choked out by obstacles, a thing that could be obscured and forgotten, a moment that needed some other spark to expose it.

This will not do, I thought.

My first attempt at a repair didn't go well. I had an old adapter in a drawer somewhere, the appliance for which had long since been discarded. The small plug end had already been cut off, so had only to strip the wires and solder them to the leads of a white Christmas light bulb. But the adapter ran at nine volts, and burned the brilliantly-shining bulb out in minutes. So I went instead to another adapter we had bought a few years ago for another purpose, one that had a switch on it to vary the voltage. I did the solder job, dialed the adapter down to three volts, and plugged it in.

And things were set right. The bulb glows a little more brightly than my dad's original, but that doesn't seem to be that important. There is light. The nativity is its own light.

And perhaps that is the element of the whole thing that really attracted me to that creche as I was growing up, though I would not have been able to identify it at that age. Every other light in the house could be out, and yet the Nativity would cut through the darkness. It was a quiet and soft light, but it was powerful; no amount of darkness could ever quench it. And that seems to me to be so in keeping with the character of God, in that he upsets and inverts the expectations of humanity. We have this stubborn insistence that real power make itself known with fanfare and pomp and circumstance, and that any power which does not do so can be easily dismissed or defeated. We expect that a real God would arrive before the nations with terrifying force and unquestionable might. Instead, He quietly arrived as a baby, the son of a simple carpenter as far as anyone was concerned, on an otherwise completely unremarkable night in an unremarkable town in what is now the West Bank.

And yet for all that, somehow, that unremarkable event still shines through all of the black of twenty centuries of history. Into a world of "an eye for an eye" came "love thy neighbour as thyself". Into a world that praises riches came "Blessed are the poor". Into the throng of vengeful humanity came "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The source of all our hope and the answer to all of our fears entered history, and what was done could not be undone.

The Christmas tree in the corner of my living room is bright, and colorful, and exciting. It dominates the space, to be sure. And yet my eye is drawn to the creche, its manger as yet empty in liturgical tradition (the Child will be placed there Christmas Day), its single quiet and humble little light burning like the light of Grace itself. Being absolutely everything it should be.

But in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.

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9 February 2012

Tonight, I siphoned my very first batch of beer from the primary fermenter into the carboy.

Twenty-three litres of the rich-looking brown liquid raced through the siphon tube between the bucket on the kitchen island and the narrow-necked glass vessel on the floor; in the carboy, the liquid spiraled, impelled by the force with which it came out of the tube beneath its surface as the level rose, while in the white plastic bucket, little bits of hops deposited themselves on the sides as the level steadily fell.

It took several minutes, and was the most dramatic point of my brewing activities tonight. A close second would have been the specific gravity test, in which I took a sample of the still-uncarbonated beer and dropped a hydrometer in it. One point zero-one-eight, it read, indicating that the yeast and the malt sugars had, over the past five days, done their slow and patient dance.

Which itself holds some mystery. Even if one understands chemically and biologically what is going on, there's still an enchanting quality to it. In some ways it is simple and direct: bacteria feed on sugars in the water that have been put there by malted and boiled grains, turning those sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol as their by-products. Nothing magical. It all makes sense.

The wonder is in the watching of the thing. I mixed everything on Saturday night, pouring in my hot water and my concentrated wort that came with the kit, topping it all up to the right volume and doing an initial specific gravity test. I checked the temperature, which was right where it should have been. Then I pitched in the yeast, covered the bucket with a towel, shoved it in a corner of the kitchen, and waited.

For two days, little, if anything, really happened. I peeked under the towel a few times, and saw that there was indeed a sort of foam on the surface, but not much was really going on. I could see the odd bubble break, but that was all. Then on day three, I didn't even have to pull back the towel as I leaned my head close to the bucket. I could hear the foaming. A quiet but constant sort of static. On day four, it was outright loud. This morning, it had gone quiet, and tonight the hydrometer told me it was time to rack it into the carboy.

And there it will sit for the next month, to settle, to clear, to become what it ought to be.

I've always been a little fascinated by the very existence of such a thing as beer, for the simple reason that it doesn't happen by accident. It may be the cumulative result of a series of accidental discoveries combined with some very deliberate experiments, but you don't find puddles of it in forests where ne'er a human foot has trod. To make it well requires careful and deliberate action, and even then we cannot do it ourselves. We put all the parts in place, but it is the yeast, not the brewer, that does the beautiful work.

Beer shares this genesis with bread and wine.

These past weeks have been marked by careful and deliberate action. By the honesty of others I have learned much about parts and places. I understand things, and myself, far more clearly than I think I ever have. I see where I fall down now, and I see where I've tripped others up. The process I need to undertake is becoming less cloudy; the steps are something I can do. But it all needs to ferment to become what it ought to be, and that part is slow, mysterious, and out of my hands.

The difficulty is in the waiting. But the wonder is in the watching.

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9 October 2011 (barely)

It's getting on to the middle of the night and I'm sitting in my basement anodizing telescope parts.

And so arrived October. The temperature dropped suddenly. Bad news arrived from every corner and has everyone contemplating mortality. A few weeks ago an old friend from my school days was in a car wreck, and his pregnant wife is still waiting for him to come out of a coma. A co-worker had his girlfriend's father finally yield after a years-long battle with cancer. Another close friend lost his father to a heart attack; that old man I had known personally, and both my wife and I had trouble finding our voices when we sang Amazing Grace at his funeral. And last week we were all called into the conference room at work and told that the man who started the company in the first place - the father of the two brothers who currently run it, and a veritable fixture in the shop - probably can expect to last six months, a year at the outside, before his newly-found cancer whisks him off to meet his Maker.

And through all of this, the leaves quietly fell.

I managed to get to the range this past Thursday, for the first time in a few weeks. It was quiet and cold, which is exactly how I needed it to be. I only brought the .22, and the only other people there were shooting either centrefires or handguns, which meant I had the whole rimfire range to myself. I started right into it, pinning my targets to the hundred-meter board and seating myself at the shooting table with the spotting scope set up to my right.

I put maybe fifty shots downrange like this before I noticed a little patch of red, barely perceptible and not recognizable as anything in particular against the background of the dirt berm, just to the right of the fifty-meter board. I wasn't sure if it was just a patch of oddly-covered earth, or a rock, or something put there more deliberately. I knew it wasn't an animal. Just a smudge on the terrain.

I lined up the sights out of curiosity. The rifle was zeroed for a hundred metres; I guessed that at fifty metres it would shoot about four inches high. I squeezed the trigger and watched as the spray-painted steel plate swung on its chains from the impact of the tiny bullet. I smiled; a gong. Someone had hung a gong. I emptied my five-round magazine at it.

Then I kept going. I moved over to stand right in front of it, and just started hammering away. It was fun. Not that hard. A five-inch target at fifty metres doesn't present an enormous problem for a marksman, even with iron sights, so it was sort of easy. But it was gratifying.

I sat right down on the pavement, forgoing chair and shooting table, and firing, for the first time, from an actual field position. I would be taking my second shot before the gong had stopped swinging from the impact of the first. Sometimes the gong swung above the line of the bullet's path just in time to avoid it. And sometimes I just plain missed.

My fingers were so chilled it was difficult to load the cartridges into the magazine, but I had no inclination to stop. It was a different kind of shooting than the one-shot-at-a-time, look through the spotting scope on each round kind of shooting I'm used to. But for a time it felt liberating to not take it so seriously for once.

I put 250 rounds through that rifle that day, in rusting wind with birds chirtping. Next time I might concentrate my time on the hundred meter target again, but I was glad for that gong.

Because sometimes I take even my relaxing a little too seriously.

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The Shadow and the Chair

18 May 2011

It's been a long silence, I know.

'Busy' barely describes the past few weeks. It's all a bit of a blur, punctuated with clearer recollections of moments or events. Madly working on the 'Pin-the-thagomizer-on-the-dinosaur' poster for my boy's birthday party on my lunchbreak, still in my coveralls. Megan's haunting soprano as she chanted Psalm 22 while the altar was stripped on Maundy Thursday, and then again as she delivered the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil two days later. The general runaround that always accompanies doing our taxes. Making a paper flower with my son while my wife still slept upstairs on the morning of Mother's day. A series of orchestrations to pull off something for her birthday, involving staff at camera stores and restaurants.

And yet, in all of this, the sense of being buried under all of it has been strangely absent. For all that's gone on, I would have expected to feel like I was falling behind. That's what I'm used to feeling when things are busy: the growing shadow of things left undone.

But these past few weeks, I actually feel like I've been keeping up. Not, mind you, getting much further ahead, but keeping pace with the cloud, holding steady, keeping momentum and not tripping over my laces.

Being busy is not something I'm naturally good at. Getting things done on time, remembering things, planning ahead, are all skills I somehow failed to acquire in my youth. My mother always used to tell me to make a list of what I had to do, and I never wanted to. I think I always wanted to feel like I didn't have to, which is to say that I didn't want to feel like I had to do things the way she did them.

The years have demonstrated, sometimes painfully, that I do, in fact, have to make lists. I have a daytimer now, and things that don't make it into its pages typically don't get done at all. I've used daytimers with some success over the past four years or so, but it's always been an on-and-off sort of affair. The stupid thing didn't have a regular place where it was kept; sometimes it was in my lunchbox so I could use it at work, sometimes on the counter, sometimes in a bag in the basement or the mudroom. And even when I had it handy, never did I really have a space to sit down and look it over. Why the kitchen table wasn't good enough I'll probalby never know, but it just wasn't.

I have an office of sorts in the basement. It's a nice finished room, and my bookshelf, rifles, and tarantula all live down there. It even has a perfectly serviceable desk, and I never really did much work down there because I didn't have a stupid chair. I did, actually, but it was a cheap little task chair with no arms, and its backrest had long since broken off, making it more of a swivelling stool than a chair, and not at all comfortable to sit on for any length of time.

So I bought a chair.

Not just any chair. I scoured Kijiji for a deal, and came across one that caught my eye. It looked old, made in the stainless-steel-tubing style with arms and a high back, upholstered in leather. The description said 'one of a kind' and something about a flap, which I didn't completely understand from the ad's text. But it was 25 bucks, and the seller was in the neighbourhood, so I checked it out.

This was the coolest office chair I've ever seen. As the story goes, the owner loved the chair, and though it was still very comfortable, it had become a little ragged. At the same time, he had had a long, chocolate brown leather coat, which, though it had gone out of style, was still in good condition. So he got out his sewing machine and reupholstered the entire chair with the leather from the coat. So now, just to the right of centre on the high back, one can see the distinctive shape of a breast pocket flap, sewn shut, right about where the pocket would be on a person sitting in the chair.

Suddenly it's a pleasure to sit at my desk, which I've cleared off; it had been covered in junk for months.

Yes, I'm busy. But I'm not floundering. For once I feel like I'm steering the ship instead of drifting along aboard it, and that's refreshing. The leopard is learning. It's simple things, sometimes, that get in our way, like not having a stupid chair or keeping the alarm clock too close to the bed or not having shelves for your shoes. Sometimes things actually are more complicated than that, too. But less often than we think.

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So Said the Saint

St. Patrick's Day, 2011

"I arise today by the strength of Heaven:

Brightness of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

-St. Patrick of Ireland

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Stacked Deck

15 March 2011

There's a truth about machining that often comes to mind for me, and especially on days like today: "Some jobs you do with a smile on your face. Some jobs you do with fear and trembling. And some jobs you do with weeping and gnashing of teeth."

When you pull out the biblical metaphors, you know things have gotten bad. The situation is usually one in which a lot of expensive work has already gone into a part, and now it's up to me to either finish it, or do some more work on it. Everything I do has to be brought into line perfectly with everything that has already been done, and pretty much every time my tool touches the piece, there's a very real possibility that I might send it to the scrap bin.

I find I really have to just forget entirely about how long the job is taking. Every piece in the batch becomes a lengthy duel that has to be thought through like a chess game. There are seriously times when I just stand in front of my idle machine, staring at the part, thinking "By what unholy craft am I going to make this part good?"

I'm limited by the fact that machining is what artists call "subtractive" - that is, I can take metal off, but I can't put it back on. There are precious few mistakes that can be undone in this process. So my bosses usually just leave me alone when I'm staring blankly at the piece. I might, in fact, be trying to recall Aimee Mann lyrics or remember whether I put the milk back in the fridge this morning. It's not out of the ordinary for my mind to wander like that.

But when you're essentially trying to superimpose straight lines onto crooked ones in such a way that no one really notices and that everything still goes click when you put it together, it's sometimes in your employer's best interest that you take those little brain vacations.

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Not Like It Was Your Last

9 March 2011. Ash Wednesday

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

So said the priest tonight in the service, as he made the sign of the cross in ash and oil on the foreheads of the parishioners. It's one of those quiet, subdued, somber services, though nothing like Maundy Thursday. That's a ways off yet.

Here at the gate of Lent we meditate on our mortality. Father Steve made a number of points as to why this practice has a certain wisdom to it: appreciation, perspective, motivation. Of course, the idea came up of how to live day to day. I've always struggled with that somewhat. We hear all the time in songs and see all the time on posters or mugs or trendy shopping bags that we should live each day as though it were our last.

If I did that, I wouldn't get up and go to work tomorrow. And if the world didn't end, I would go broke and my family would starve. So this advice seems kind of absurd.

And so it was refreshing when Father Steve spoke to exactly that. We can't just ignore our responsibilities - we have to do what we have to do, and we have to assume that we're going to wake up tomorrow. But rather than decide what we are going to do today, perhaps it's more poignant to decide who we are going to be today. Because we can choose to change that, even drastically, without compromising the future that, in all likelihood, really does lay before us. We can get up and go to work and use a patience we didn't use yesterday. We can think of how to win an enemy over instead of how to strike back. We can be different people in the same places and doing the same things, and it will matter. And others will remember.

I propose a shift in the cliche. We can't live each day as though it were our last. But we can try to live each day as though it were the only one anyone would remember, and I imagine that if we could do that, we wouldn't go far wrong.

I know, I know. Easier said...

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I'm Pleased to Introduce...

7 March 2011

We've had some contractors working in the shop for the past few days, working on cleaning 30 years of general gunk off our once-white cement walls. It's a difficult job, to be sure, and can't possibly be a pleasant one. They're up on ladders spraying degreaser at the wall, then scrubbing it with what are basically brooms. I would feel sorry for them if they were doing a better job than they actually are, but I have to confess, I sort of don't.

And one in particular I definitely don't feel sorry for after today.

He happened to stop by my bench and comment on the disassembled rifle that lay on it. I bought this rifle on Friday, after having saved for a while for it, and had brought it into work to clean off the preserving grease that the thing had been caked in for probably the past fifty years. He asked what kind it was, and I told him: a Mosin-Nagant M91/30, made in 1932 at the Tula Arsenal in Russia and refurbished at Izhevsk, probably during the second World War. At the time, the 91/30 was the standard issue infantry rifle of the Red Army.

He seemed to find it interesting, gave a sort of "Huh," and moved along. He was the only one of the contractors who had commented, and after the fact, I noticed a little more about him. A blond buzz-cut tells you virtually nothing about a young man, until you combine it with a black shirt bearing a huge Iron Cross and with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" emblazoned boldly on the back without a trace of irony.

(If you're not familiar with this phrase and its history, click here.)

I mentioned this to the machinist who works at the lathe next to mine, a smart, irreverent, tattooed fellow with no patience for ignorance. I thought it was comical, in a not-entirely-funny kind of way, that this guy of all of them would be the one to inquire about my Russian rifle. My friend saw the irony, and, being the sort of guy he is, pressed it a bit.

My friend talked to the fellow a little, and asked him if he knew what the phrase on the back of his shirt actually meant. The contractor said that he did, and that the shirt was from his friend's motorcycle shop.

"So, are Jews welcome at your buddy's shop?" my friend asked him, only half-joking.

"Nope. Neither are black people," was the reply, except that this guy didn't use the term black people. And he wasn't at all joking. And that was the end of that conversation.

When my friend relayed that exchange to me later in the day, I was suddenly very happy that I had had the opportunity to introduce this young man to one of the very rifles that stopped people like him from taking over the world. It's a morbid thought, I know, to wonder how many lives that weapon may have taken. But when context and circumstance are given their due, the picture changes a little.

I had wanted a Mosin-Nagant for several reasons: they're relatively inexpensive, easy to find, powerful, and accurate. In short, they make a decent long-range target gun. But mostly, I'd wanted one for its historical significance. This was the rifle that stopped the Wehrmacht at the Volga. This is the rifle that drove the Nazis from Stalingrad all the way back to Berlin.

And after this little encounter today, this rifle means even more to me than it did the day I bought it. It is a symbol to me of all the men and women who, when things were at their worst, said to people like this stocky young man No. No, you won't take the helm. No, we do not consent. And no matter how many lives they had to lay down, no matter how many towns they had to burn behind them they stuck by their no. This piece of lacquered wood and blued steel is a testament to the fact that we can have hope in humanity, that despite everything we see today, there are those, and enough of them, who will not see evil go unchallenged. That the wicked still have a mighty throng willing to oppose them, who will fight to the last breath if they have to, for the hope of a tomorrow without fear.

The price of the Allied victory in World War Two was, of course, enormous. And no nation of the world paid more dearly with the lives of its sons and its daughters than the Soviet Union, with some twenty-four million dead. We may talk about Stalin's atrocities, and atrocious they were. But the kids who ran screaming into a hail of German bullets, either with Mosin-Nagant in hand or waiting for one to fall from the hands of one their friends, were not fighting for Comrade Stalin. They were fighting to stop Hitler.

And though it was at a terrible cost, stop him they did. And there was hope once more.

I couldn't help but notice the significance in the fact that this young man in his Iron Cross shirt was, after all, up on a ladder scrubbing the crud off our walls. "Fate, it would seem, is not without a sense of irony."

It's not the slightest bit unusual for one to attach a name to a favourite firearm. Jayne from Firefly named his rifle Vera. I've named this one Nadezhda. It's Russian for "hope".

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On Earth as it is in Heaven

13 February 2011

Back around the beginning of last year, just after the massive earthquake hit Haiti, a story hit the internet about a bizarre "relief effort" directed at Port-au-Prince. Some religious organization was trying to raise money to purchase devices which, put simply, did nothing but audibly play a recording of the Bible, or portions thereof, in Creole. If I'm not mistaken, each of these units ran a little over a hundred bucks American, and someone was calling for donations to send as many of these things as possible to the devastated capital.

Not surprisingly, this was met with both anger and ridicule by secular bloggers, and I'm not sure they were wrong. There are segments of Christianity - and this outfit was presumably one of them - which believe that a person's physical or emotional or even mental well-being here on earth is of no importance, and that the only thing the Christian ought to be concerned with is the final destination of someone's soul. The extension of that perspective is to believe that sheltering the homeless, protecting the helpless, feeding the hungry or treating the sick is pointless, and that the effort is better spent trying like mad to convert them before they inevitably die.

I'm not sure that there was never a time when I believed that myself. It sounds sickeningly familiar, and in my youth, I might have looked at things nearly that way. What disturbs me more is that there are still churches asking themselves whether Christianity ought to be concerned with social justice at all.

Susan delivered the sermon this morning. She's not a priest yet, but real sermons are part of her seminary training, and though the lectionary threw her in the deep end this morning, she swam like a natural. The gospel came from Matthew 5 - the Sermon on the Mount - and dealt with how we approach the Law, the Ten Commandments, the "rules" of the faith. I smiled a little when she brought it back to the Summary of the Law, which comes from Matthew 22, and is quoted in the Book of Common Prayer thusly:

Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.

This Summary is recited to the congregation by the priest at the beginning of every one of our services. I was disappointed to see that the Book of Alternative Services, which most Anglican churches now use, dropped it from their liturgies. But I've always been happy that my particular parish still insists on using the BCP, and the constant reminder of this summary is one of the reasons why.

To ignore the very real and immediate needs of our neighbour, then, seems an unacceptable option for the Christian church and the individuals in it. And Christ Himself, at every turn, called us to action in immediate ways. If He had had no concern for physical life, why then would he have bothered healing the sick? Why would he have raised the dead? And at the Judgement, in Matthew 25, Jesus does not condemn people because they lied or stole or drank too much, but because they failed to feed the hungry when they saw them or clothe the needy when they passed them.

And as Father Steve pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the Lord's Prayer itself is a call to action: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven", it says. The Gospel allows us no room to believe that God is unconcerned with suffering here. This world isn't second-rate, or a shadow of reality, or merely a "test" for the afterlife. It is God's beloved creation, as real as our very souls and spirits. And if we are "the salt of the earth", we have no cause to be alarmed at how hopelessly outnumbered we are; it's a rare individual who eats food and salt in equal proportions.

"Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public." So said Cornel West, and Susan quoted him this morning in her sermon, to great effect. Justice will not be achieved with more cops or better lawyers. It begins - and ends - with the love that Christ taught, put into practice here and now, on earth as it is in Heaven.

I don't know about you. But I know I've got a long way to go.

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On Reading Dostoevsky

2 February 2011

So I'm about halfway through Dostoevsky's Demons (often incorrectly translated as The Possessed. It's the last of his major novels that I haven't read, so I'm fairly well acquainted with his methods. I love his writing - no other fiction author has influenced my thinking and my life more - but I won't deny he's kind of difficult. There are a few things I might suggest to someone embarking on his work for the first time:

1. Learn how Russian names work. The same character might be referred to as Rodion Romanovich, Rodion Romanych, Raskolnikov, Rodya, Rodka, or Rodechka. These are all the same dude. Roman, however, is not the same dude.

2. Either read quickly or take notes, because you will be expected to remember who borrowed money from whom, how much, and for what, as well as which unfortunate has-been academic was the illegitimate child of someone-or-other's tutor and was shipped off to the provinces as a child to be raised by aunts and who has now returned after decades of absence and general mediocrity to propose marriage to the daughter of whoever it was who lent the first guy money, what the motives are for the proposal, and how much the dowry will be. Also, expect the tutor to possibly make an appearance roughly three quarters into the novel. So keep up.

3. You might find it helpful to learn French (I'm led to believe this applies to Tolstoy as well).

4. Get an edition that has some notes. Google nihilism, determinism, slavophils, and various other -isms that appear. Also, read the introduction, especially if you have the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translations. This will clear up a lot of maddening mysteries, as well as give you a clue as to what on earth Dostoevsky was driving at.

Some absolutely delicious things about him, though, are his fascination with murder, the frequency with which his characters suffer "attacks of cholerine", and his habit of describing, when a new character suddenly shows up in a scene, not only his appearance or dress, but also his level of sobriety. Something like "All eyes turned to the door; there stood Jerk Loser-ovich, in a tattered waistcoat and a neatly pressed tie, silent, resolute, and not drunk" (that's not an actual quote, but you'll find lines like it).

Best of luck to you. Really, he's brilliant.

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Even When You Know

15 January 2011

You can't possibly tell me that this picture isn't totally badass.

(And no, I wasn't actually firing the .22 in my basement. I use spent casings for dry-fire practice. Just in case you were alarmed.)

I haven't done any shooting since well before Christmas. I'd say it's been a month, at least. I could try to make the case that I just haven't had time, but that probably wouldn't be the truth, and even if it were, you probably wouldn't believe me anyway. Closer to the truth might be the fact that there have, recently, been various circumstances that made me think it wasn't even worth the effort. I've been tired, or sick (I've been in an on-again, off-again relationship with what is probably a sinus infection for the past six weeks). Who could shoot well with those handicaps?

Tonight, I was still sniffly. And tired. But I went down to the basement anyway and sent some lead through the air rifle, along with a little dry-fire with the .22, just for the sake of the practice.

I knew the results would be bad. And they were. Were they ever. I have about nine meters as a range, a little shy of the standard Olympic ten-meter lane for air rifle. I print off my own targets, which are just white sheets of paper with six half-inch diameter black dots on them. There was a time when I could keep four shots out of five inside, or at least touching, each black dot. Tonight, I could barely graze it.

My body had forgotten how to shoot. My finger was jerking the rifle all over the place instead of pressing the stock back into the pocket of my hand. My eyes wanted to focus on the target, not the front sight post. My hips and back wanted to twist into unnatural positions to bring the rifle to bear, instead of telling me to just move my feet. Or, I would do all but one of these things correctly, but I couldn't put it all together.

But I'm glad I went downstairs tonight and shot. Because sometimes, things are worth doing, even if you know you're not going to do them that well. We don't get any better at anything by avoidance. We can't bank our skill, nor does it cost us anything to spend it. My body remembers a little better now how to send the shot downrange properly. My hand remembered its movements, and the rest of me remembered how not to move. My eyes remembered how to point at the target but focus on the front sight.

I'll do better next time. Even if I know I won't do all that well then, either.

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Feeling My Age.

9 January 2010

So I had one of those "Man, I'm old" moments at work a few days ago. I was talking with an apprentice - who is perhaps twenty years old - about how exactly to do some little task that we both figured should be done. He offered what he thought was the best solution, and it made sense. "Make it so," I commanded in an affected voice. Then, continuing with the joke, I brought my right hand up to shoulder level, then gently flicked the hand forward at the wrist, pointing with my index finger and curling the other three as I did it. "Engage," I said.

It's not like I was expecting a roar of laughter or anything. But a chuckle, a bemused grin, even a rolling of the eyes, wouldn't be unreasonable to expect. But nothing came. Not the tiniest twitch save a little glance of the eyes away and back again in a slightly unnatural moment of silence.

"You don't even know what that's from, do you?" I finally said.

"No idea," was the response.

The fact that there are people old enough to drink in Saskatchewan who are yet too young to be familiar with the signature move of Captain Jean-Luc Picard astounds me. But that amount of time really has passed.

And I would hardly call myself old; I'm only thirty-two. I'm old if I'm at a Justin Bieber concert (at which point, I have much bigger problems than being old). But I'm relatively young, really. Still, I'm not in that phase of life that everyone tells you so emphatically to enjoy. "This is the best time of your life," we'd often hear when we were in high school, usually from people above forty or so.

I've always thought that there are few things you could say to a young person that could possibly be more depressing. Really, the upshot of that statement is "Enjoy being under twenty-one, because it's all downhill from here. In a couple of years, life will be a little less fun, and then it will be sort of OK, and then it will kind of suck, and after that, it will suck more and more every year until you're dead. Bye!"

And we won't even begin to talk about the people for whom High School was a nightmare of struggle or ridicule or humiliation. That kind of experience would make for a pretty crummy "high point" of anyone's life.

Now, whenever I hear someone giving that kind of advice, I feel a little bit sorry for them. I find myself wondering what kind of regret they carry with them about the last decade or two of their lives. I actually still hear people say similar things to me, even at my age now: "Ah, you're young." You can hear the sad wistfulness in their voice, and the fact that they miss their youth so much speaks to their dissatisfaction with their current circumstances. It's one thing when those words take the tone of a fond recollection; that I can understand and appreciate. But so often, the statements are full of sadness, disappointment, and perhaps most importantly, resignation.

It's that surrender, that resignation, that baffles me the most. They sound as though they have given up on any possibility of actually enjoying the lives they now have as much as they enjoyed the lives they once did. I have to wonder: what is it about their position now that is so oppressive or limiting? Responsibilities? Commitments? What barrier stands between them and real joy in living?

It's true that we take on more and more responsibilities as we grow up. I have a few myself. But we choose our commitments, and one would think we had reasons to do so when we did. We get married, we have children, we buy houses and establish careers. None of these things could we have done (ideally) when we were in High School. If the life we had then was so great, why do we give it up? If we love our spouses and our children, if we live where we like and have chosen careers we are interested in, then what about our lives as youths was so much better?

In my younger days, I couldn't have felt the warmth of the long-held companion that my wife is to me now. In my days before a child I could not have watched my own toddler reason something out that makes such perfect logical sense and is yet so completely and hilariously wrong. Not until now could I know the quiet elation of teaching an obscure tradesman's trick to a knee-knocking apprentice, or the satisfaction of telling him that he's done something well.

And I still have my pursuits. There is no birthday that stands as the deadline for dreams; be it writing a novel or shooting a four-inch group offhand at a hundred meters, there's plenty I have left to work toward, and I love working toward all of it.

My younger days weren't at all my best. They were different, to be sure, and there are plenty of memories that still make me laugh or smile. But there's wonder enough in the world to keep me busy for lifetimes to come, and I only get one. Maybe I groaned those few days ago when I felt my age so keenly, especially as "feeling old" is still a somewhat new feeling to me. But if I groaned, I did it with a grin.

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Call me Ishmael.

2 January 2011

For a few years now, I've been doing a little amateur astronomy. I haven't taken it very far, really. My main telescope is a very modest little five-inch reflector on a manual equatorial mount. I have a motor drive for it, but nothing like the kind of computer-guided gadgetry that has become ubiquitous in the hobby now. I have a whopping three eyepieces, and a little set of four filters. Once in a while, I'll drop in on a popular message board for amateur astronomers.

It happens often on these message boards that a neophyte astronomer, one who has an interest in the hobby but hasn't yet purchased a telescope, will show up with the obvious and natural question: What telescope should I buy? This, of course, is invariably met with a chorus - or, more often, a cacophony - of answers. Some say go for focal length, for observing the planets. Some say go for aperture, gathering more light for deep-sky observation of galaxies and nebulae. Some will say the sensible thing, which is not to recommend a telescope so much as it is to ask more questions. In all of this, an axiom seems to have arisen: "The best telescope is the one you will use."

This piece of wisdom has its roots in the experience of former neophytes who, in their introduction to the hobby, went out and bought the biggest telescope they could afford. Yes, that scope would have brought them the brightest, most spectacular views of faint star clusters and distant galaxies. They quickly found, however, that the time and effort involved in setting it up proved too great for them to get it out of the basement more than once or twice a year. Oddly, the found that they could have spent less money and more time at the eyepiece had they bought a smaller, simpler instrument. They bought a scope by the mantra of "aperture is king" - which is true, all else being equal. But all else was not equal.

Which brings me to the nifty little box that showed up under the tree for me this Christmas, which was not a telescope. It was a Kobo eReader.

Thank you, honey.

For those of you who have never seen one of these things, be it a Kobo or Kindle or Nook or what have you, they look nothing like what you would expect. I would not have had any interest in one had I not actually handled one and seen it with my own eyes. I always assumed they would look something like an iPad, with a laptop-like screen. The actual screens on these things, though, couldn't be more unlike a laptop. It's almost unsettling at first. They emit no light. None. Were you to turn the lights off, you wouldn't be able to see the screen. It actually looks like a piece of paper with printed text on it that someone put in a frame. Really. I'm not lying.

Not surprisingly, though, there's a great deal of resistance to these things by avid readers and book-lovers. And I get it, I really do. I've often gone out of my way and spent way too much money to get the nice, well-bound, hardcover editions of books I love and want to keep (it's hard to resist the editions the Everyman's Library has been putting out for the past ten or fifteen years). I love my solid wood, six-foot-long bookshelf, built for me by my father years ago. Sometimes I like to just look across it, from one end to the other, and read the titles off the spines of the volumes. I love the haphazard lines they produce, all being different sizes and colours and thicknesses. I'll most likely pull one or two of them off the shelf and flip through them a little, looking for favourite passages. And of course, certain books have certain memories associated with them - the cold winter bus rides during my apprenticeship on which I read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, or a camping trip with my family during which I'd bought my paperback copy of Crime and Punishment. Most often, I'll examine my hardcover edition of The Brothers Karamazov, if for no other reason than that it is the novel which has influenced me most and has moved me to tears so many times.

I'm no stranger to the appeal and value of the physical object. But a question lingers: if I love books so much, why have I read so abysmally few of them in the past few years?

There are, of course, answers. They all sound trivial, but they really do add up. Mostly, I have little time to read at home, as the general demands of family life just make any solid chunks of time very difficult to find. At work, breaks are usually spent eating, which makes it hard to hold a book open. And though I have a job which actually permits me to read even while I'm being paid, the oil and coolant and grease of the workplace and the job itself often discourages me from bringing nice books, the only kind I would probably buy, to work. Larger books are unwieldy and hard to take along in a coat pocket to places where you might find yourself in a waiting room.

This is the part where the axiom about the telescopes will start to make sense.

I took the Kobo to work last week. I read Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which I've been meaning to read since high school and have owned a printed copy of since 1997 or so. It's a quick read, and I finished it in a day, mostly while my machine was actually running. That day, the merits of the Kobo revealed themselves. On breaks, I could set the thing down on my bench and eat with both hands, still reading all the while. While I was working, any two minute span during which my machine didn't need my immediate attention was spent reading, and it was far more significant than one would think that I didn't need to close the book to put it down, or flip back to my page when I picked it up again.

The Kobo is the book I actually use. I'd barely finished The Metamorphosis when I decided to take on Moby Dick, another I have never read, but one that was included on the Kobo. Also included were Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and who knows, I might take a crack at those. Books like that I would never carry around, but with an eReader they fit in my coat pocket so neatly as to barely be noticed.

And who knows? It could well be that the device itself becomes an old friend, a traveling companion that goes with me through these novels and stories. After all, it is the text, not the ink and paper, that are the work, no matter how much we fetishize those things. Talk to me in a year and I'll let you know if that actually happens. But for now, I've got a white whale to chase, and I'm actually a little excited about going to work tomorrow.

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But it did.

30 December (later still)

And now I'm kind of embarassed. Sorry, folks. This really should be the last time.

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Your Patience...

30 December (even later) appreciated. This should be it for nonsense posts. Unless, of course, something else goes terribly wrong. Which it won't. Of course.

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Sorry to Bother You...

30 December 2010 (the wee hours)

This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System...

Sorry to all those on the RSS feed, and especially those whose inboxes I have just cluttered. All this post does is test out my email script. Sorry if you were expecting something more spectacular.

Admit it, though. You weren't.

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The Aha Moment

29 December 2010

Over a pint tonight at my usual bar an "aha" moment came. It's a moment I love in the writing of a short story, and there have been a couple of those in my current project.

I wonder sometimes if anyone around notices. I have to really think about it to recall the things that happen when that moment comes: I imagine that my eyes widen a little. I quickly write something down in my notebook, probably something short, just a few words that are enough to keep me from forgetting the general idea of what's just hit me. That's followed by a minute or so of non-writing, which includes a great deal of pen-tapping, excited twitching, and probably, tongue repositioning. Then, I think, there's some actual laying of ink on paper that comes in spurts. A little furious penwork, some more pen-tapping and waving, more words, more pauses.

Until now, I never really considered what the "aha" moment looked like. My usual bartenders have probably seen it more than anyone. It's sort of comical, really, and makes me feel like a ridiculous human being. But it's a necessary part of the process of... whatever I'm doing.

Sometimes I wonder why it is I'm actually writing fiction, since I don't really have any intentions of publishing through conventional means. I guess I'm leaving that until I have something I might actually want to publish. I mean, anyone who writes wants to get published. But that's not the same as actually having written something you think is worth publishing. And even then, I'm not sure just how I'd want to put the stuff out there. The game is changing in writing like it has in everything else.

And all of my projects keep getting out of hand, anyway. It'd be nice to finish something. But despite that, I'm kind of comfortable with the in-process stuff.

For now. You know.

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When the Novelty Wears Off

12 December 2010

It comes out of nowhere, that moment when the view behind you becomes a sweeping panorama, rich and full of detail and nuance and theme.

We decorated the tree tonight. For a long time as we did it, I couldn't figure out what it was that was making me so quietly elated. There was nothing particular about what we were doing; they were the same things we'd done in years past. The struggle in the cold, cramped crawlspace under the basement stairs to get all of the Christmas boxes out and up to the main floor, eggnog and rum with a little nutmeg, M&M's in the shiny, red, M&M-shaped bowl we'd bought years ago, some Christmas music piped from the laptop through the stereo. The same tree decorations we'd used for years. There was nothing new about it, and yet there was something that came over me that I had not felt in previous years.

And then it occurred to me: this is the first Christmas in which these things didn't feel somewhat new. They felt established, they felt normal, they felt like the traditions they were originally meant to be. These things felt familiar in a way they never had before. Not novel or contrived or forced or even deliberate. Just natural.

In moments like these, you come face to face with the enormity of the life you have built with someone. Of course, it isn't just the tree. But the tree brings to mind for me the thousands of other things that have become our normal, with no thought to how anyone else does them.

And over the years, normal becomes more precious than novel. Not because we become set in our ways or are just more comfortable maintaining the status quo, but because that normal is the product of shared history, with its feasts and its famines, its war and its peace. It's a normal that was fought for, not stumbled upon or settled into.

So here's to you, honey. For the life we've built together and the immeasurable value it carries with it now. For working, sometimes fighting, alongside me for this normal. So that putting up the tree feels like it's supposed to.

And it's been less than eight years. I look forward to the rest of our lives.

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My Skull has its Candy Back

6 December 2010

We probably all have, at one time or another, gone on lamenting the "throw-away" culture we find ourselves living in. And rightly so, even if we do continue to take part in it to varying degrees. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who gaped in horror at his television when they started advertising the disposable hand towels for use in your own bathroom.

So imagine my delight tonight when I managed to successfully repair my busted headphones.

I know, I know. It's hardly rocket science. But I've never done it before, and generally, I'm kind of a moron when it comes to electrical connections. But I had to try this. This was the second set of decent headphones I'd bought, and it hadn't lasted very long before one of the earbuds started cutting out.

It's a common problem, apparently. The wire right at the plug bends so frequently that it eventually breaks inside the rubber cover. I suppose it might be fair to say that I'm particularly hard on mine, just because of the way my iPod sits in my coveralls when I'm at work. If I'm standing, there's no strain on the wire, but if I crouch, the fabric tends to stretch over the plug.

But I figured there had to be a way. Google was my friend, as is so often the case. And now, for the staggering cost of four dollars and a total time investment of about ten minutes with a sharp knife and a soldering iron, my forty-dollar Skullcandy's work like new. And I even have an extra plug, since The Source sells them in boxes of two (which doesn't make much sense to me - how often do you need two headphone plugs at a time?).

I absolutely love not throwing things away.

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First Sunday in Advent

29 November 2010

Yesterday morning, we opened the service with hymn number eighty-nine in the Book of Common Praise, and it will be the opening hymn of every service until Christmas. I'd been looking forward to it for weeks, as had others in the choir, and probably throughout the parish. Its time had come, the city now blanketed in snow and nightfall coming before most of us get home from work. And like a dominant drum, it delivered a heavy and resounding beat in the liturgical rhythm of the year, making minds and hearts bristle with the anticipation of the joyous significance of what was soon to be observed with its iconic first line: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

The green linens on the altar had been exchanged for purple, and the advent candle stood on a small table just in front of the sanctuary. Father Steve commented as he lit it that he was considering moving it from the right side of the sanctuary to the left, as parents with small children typically sit on the right, in the front pew. "Fire is attractive", he said with a chuckle, and several parishioners chuckled in agreement.

He spoke on the imagery of light in the Gospels, of Christ as the Light of the World. Pointed out the beauty of that particular image. The light shines in the darkness, wrote St. John, and the darkness did not overcome it. Water can quench fire and air can wick away water. But all the world's darkness is powerless to stop a single speck of light. Too often, something is lost in the way we talk about Christ, as though Christmas marked simply the arrival of that which would, eventually, make a legalistic sort of payment for the sins of humanity.

There is a beauty in forgiveness, to be sure, but it is not the entirety of grace. If we think of Christ only as a sacrificial lamb, then we can think of ourselves only as bad people needing something to paint us good. It's a disheartening thought, and offers us little but guilt. Fortunately, that is not the proposition the faith gives us. That perspective misses what is perhaps the point: that when He arrived, the rightful King had landed, Heaven had broken into Earth, and nothing would ever be the same. He was not simply the means by which our debt would be paid. He was the means by which we would be changed, the means by which a broken world could be put to rights. The curtain was torn, and light irreversibly spilled into the darkness.

There is a teaching in the Orthodox church that is fundamental to their theology, and in my mind, ought to be fundamental to ours. "Christ did not come to make bad men good," it teaches. "He came to make dead men live." It has been many years since any single teaching has put the hook in me like this one did. It says so much with so few words. It says, like Christ Himself did, the Kingdom of God is at hand. It attests to the abundant life we are built to have now, here on earth, and lets the afterlife worry about itself. It says that yes, we have made mistakes, yes, we have gone wrong, and God intends not to punish us, but to make us what we truly are, to make us more alive than we can be by ourselves. Here and now. And that contagious light has arrived. Emmanuel, says the hymn, using the Hebrew. God is with us.

And so we arrive at Advent, as yet recollecting the voice of one calling in the wilderness, but looking ahead to the rift in the veil, the lighting of the beacon, the spark of hope that the black of a thousand nights cannot swallow or diminish.

Rejoice. Rejoice.

Emmanuel, indeed.

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Cause for Alarm

21 November 2010

Let me be clear from the beginning. We all have our own musical tastes, and for those of us to whom music is important, we tend to define a part of ourselves by those tastes. It's a matter of identity, in a way. Sometimes it's outright snobbery, and that's okay too.

So here's a brief overview of mine. Favourite band ever is, without question, Radiohead. I'm a little annoyed that mainstream media paid virtually no attention to their music after Ok Computer, because they produced some of their most beautiful work after that. Anyhow, some others: Catherine Wheel, Raising the Fawn, Metric, Tegan and Sarah, The Ropes, The Tragically Hip, old U2 (up to and including Achtung Baby - it all took a dive after that), and Aimee Mann in a big way. Aimee Mann is probably the biggest departure from all the others, but the woman is one of the most brilliant songwriters I've ever encountered. There are, of course, others, but that gives you an idea of where my musical appetites hang out.

So imagine my unease when I was forced to confront the uncomfortable realization that I actually like Taylor Swift.

There's something damnably catchy about her music, and she actually does have a particular turn of phrase that I just find irresistible. I wouldn't call it brilliant or groundbreaking or anything like that. It is, after all, still more or less conventional pop, formulaic and standard. Candy, you know. But a truffle is candy. And you would never put a truffle in the same class as a bag of Fuzzy Peaches. The girl actually does have real talent, and for her to be writing material like this at twenty years old (yes, she wrote her third album without any collaborators), is impressive.

Still, I was kind of horrified at first.

I confessed it to a co-worker, who I won't name. This guy is a NOFX/Bloodhound Gang/Bad Religion sort of guy. So naturally, at first, he laughed at me. Then he quieted down a little, looked at me with a sort of pity, rolled his eyes a bit, and pulled his own iPod out of his pocket. "You wanna talk about guilty pleasures..." he started, scrolling the wheel a little, then put the iPod in front of me so I could see the highlighted artist on the list.

It was Aqua.

I can't deny, it made me feel better.

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Sniff. Waaah.

17 November 2010

Stupid viruses.

I felt a little twinge of it in my throat this morning. By noon I had to accept the fact that I'm sick. And tonight I just want to wrap myself in flannel and get all loopy on Neo Citron. It's cherry-flavoured. I half-considered cutting it with a little flavoured vodka, but didn't.

The alarm clock will still go off in the morning and I will still have to brave the newly-arrived cold and I will still be expected to hit completely unreasonable tolerances and generally perform magic with my lathe.

I seriously need to learn to be more of a baby when I'm sick. I never was any good at plying sympathy out of people.

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Old School Rocks So Hard

4 November 2010

Today I was reminded of just how awesome Apple was in the past. Don't get me wrong, their new stuff is spectacular (not that I own much of it). It's just that the new stuff is all flash and "wow, that's amazing!" where there old stuff was just so understated and practical and brilliant.

I have an old G3 PowerBook (a Wallstreet) that I've retired to use solely at work, next to my massive lathe, for making setup sheets. It's simple word processing. I have OS X installed on it, but I run it in OS 9, because only OS 9 recognizes my thumb drive through the USB card that I plug into the card slot. That's right. This laptop is so freaking old that I need a removable card to give it USB ports; there are none on the machine itself.

I use the thumb drive because this laptop isn't connected to the network, so I save the setup sheets as RTF's on the thumb drive, and just pop over to one of the shop's computers to print it. It's easy.

I had discussed with the other machinist who runs a similar lathe the idea of him also making setup sheets. He was on board with the idea, but didn't have a computer at his machine. Then one day, it occurred to him that he had an old iMac sitting in a box in his basement. So he brought it in today, and I started screwing around with it.

This G3 233 iMac had OS 8.5 installed, dating back to 1998 or so, a tray-loading CD-ROM drive, and a whopping 64 MB of RAM. Right away, I knew this thing was old. It did, however, have built-in USB ports. I thought this would be no problem, until I tried a thumb drive on one of those ports. It seems OS 8.5 lacked the necessary drivers to recognize one of these things.

So, with no thumb-drive compatability, no network cabling, and (as anyone familiar with these machines knows), no floppy drive, I was at a loss for a way to get data from my laptop to the newly-arrived iMac (which, by the way, was in pristine condition).

And then I noticed something that made me remember something.

On the left speaker cover of the iMac there was a near-black little window. I checked the back of my PowerBook - there it was, another little near-black window. And suddenly there was hope. I'd never done it before, but I recalled that these old legacy machines were equipped with something really nifty - infrared network capability. Sit the PowerBook right in front of the iMac, set up the IR network, and away you go.

It took a little screwing around, but it worked, flawlessly, and data started flying around like magic. No AirPort, no cables, no thumb drives or floppies. Just a really cool solution they'd thought to include all those years ago, now extinct with the advent of standard wireless cards.

As geeky as this is, it made my day.

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All Beautiful the March of Days

25 October 2010

Feel free to blame me. I had half wondered, Saturday night, if perhaps the white stuff would show up Sunday morning; I had picked a hymn for the service that was all about the changing of seasons and the coming of winter. And sure enough, when I pulled back the curtain yesterday as I got out of bed, there it all was.

I'm sure many spent the day complaining. It wasn't just the snow; it was cold, cloudy, generally a grey and almost oppressive kind of day. I went to church and played the service (and did my bumbling best to handle a technical issue in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer - anyone know how to fix a Roland KR-177?), then went home and had a simple lunch. We all went to a friend's place to pick up some photo equipment. He lives on the other side of town, and the long drive was notably, and comfortably, quiet. It was an easy sort of day, the kind where you don't get ambitious. Where you let the house or the blanket or even the car wrap you up with heat and stare outside.

My wife has, in the past, commented on the annoying obligation of good weather, the kind that makes you feel like you can't possibly waste such a beautiful day, and makes you feel compelled to do the things that only that kind of weather permits, whether you actually feel like it or not. This was not one of those days. This was a day blissfully free from suggestion.

Except, perhaps, the hint it gave of things to come. The quiet has arrived, and the cold with it. Soon will come the next beat in the rhythm of the year: Hallowe'en, and All Saints' Day, and then Advent, and the reverent joy it heralds.

It is the change, though, that moves me most. Every season, we become familiar, and the wonder is lost. In spring, we look around and marvel at the new life everywhere, the beauty of green grass and flowers and birds. By the end of summer, these things have become mundane. And now, the snow comes, new and fresh in its own right even if I have seen thirty-some winters. Creation becomes new again.

All beautiful, the march of days as seasons come and go.
The hand that shaped the rose hath wrought the crystal of the snow...

Complain if you want. But all the better if you don't want to.

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Letting Things Look Up.

10 October 2010

Things felt different around the shop this past week, and it is good. I think it's the rising population. We lost so many people in the recession, and really felt it then. Ever since, the parking lot behind the shop has been an expanse of concrete punctuated by the odd vehicle.

That was the detail, I think, that hit morale the hardest when it first happened. We used to compete for parking spaces; by the time the axe had fallen for the last time, we all could have commuted to work in forty-foot RV's and had no trouble finding places to put them. That empty space was a reminder, every time we arrived in the morning and left in the evening, every time we walked outside at lunch or went for a cigarette, of just how bad things were.

That was a year and a half ago, give or take. And now, finally, that lot is filling again. Some of the vehicles belong to past colleagues, returning to the shop they once called home. Some of them belong to new blood. And the collection of cars and trucks against the fence is once again beginning to resemble a row, punctuated by gaps. No longer sporadic presences in a field of naughts set apart by faded yellow lines.

And the shop itself is fewer empty spaces. Five bays, and you can walk from bay one to bay five now without being beyond sight of another person. There's something going on in all spaces. No part of the shop feels vacuous, which I couldn't have said two months ago.

Things are in motion, and there is promise again. Nothing to bet the farm on, but I'll take what I can get, because for now the optimism feels good and for once I can afford to be wrong.

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By Any Other Way

14 September 2010

I'm fairly sure that had someone told me thirteen years ago that the circumstances of my life would be as they are now, I would have laughed. A vocation in the trades and membership in a liturgical church weren't things my thinking was pointing to back then, back when I was starting university as an aspiring academic with a cultivated distaste for institutionalized faith.

Some, from a distance, may look at me now and wonder, shaking their heads, what went wrong. What wrench fell off the cowling and into the gears. There were times, I think, when I wondered that myself. Or at least, wondered whether something had gone wrong.

They say that hindsight is always 20/20. But the older I get, the less convinced I am of that. I think that hindsight does, perhaps, grow clearer with time. But what it views at first as a grave mistake may prove, years later, to be the gold nugget you tripped over, the rock face you slid down to the clear and cool lake you never would have found otherwise.

I make it sound so accidental when I don't believe it actually is. Because this past couple of years, it has seemed, more than ever before, that I am exactly where I ought to be. Everything I have pursued, every endeavor I have undertaken, all of my achievements and especially my failures, have brought me here, to these spaces now, in the midst of these people and privy to these conversations and a part of these stories. Places to give and receive, places where I am both nurtured and nurturer. Learning what I was not ready to learn before, and giving what I could not possibly have given before, able now only by the path that has brought me here. Had I come to it by any other way, this place might be wasted on me.

I know the plans I have for you, saith the Lord.

Sometimes, when pieces fall into place, I cannot help but wonder at the perfection of God, who can use not only my strengths but also my greatest weaknesses and my most colossal failures. The Anglican church teaches that faith does not make you someone that you are not; it helps you become more who you truly are. And in this wonder, I become not a small, insignificant automaton or a grovelling, unworthy wretch, but rather, a human being made more fully alive by an elegant grace.

Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Thy book they were all written,
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.

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On Gunpowder and Sunsets

30 August 2010

I really didn't think today would end this well.

The weather was, in a word, crappy. It rained this morning, cleared a little at noon when I ducked out from work to go buy the range membership, then started raining again just before I left work and started heading east on Highway 14. But once I hit the highway, I could see, in the distance, a break in the clouds.

The Sherwood Park Fish and Game Association's shooting range is probably a forty-minute drive or so from the city. A long way, when you've got a brand new rifle that you've never fired in the trunk and three hundred rounds of cheap ammunition to burn. The radio seemed in the spirit of things, though in an annoying kind of way; as I made the turn off 14 onto the country road, on came Mother Mother's Hayloft, followed immediately by Blur's Song 2. I couldn't help but smirk. It was like an attempt at encouragement by someone who just doesn't get it.

There were a few other people there when I arrived. As I unlocked the range gate, I could hear the deep boom of someone's centerfire going off. But no one was at the rimfire range. I had that one all to myself, separated from the others by high dirt berms on three sides, and isolated. Which suited me just fine.

You shoot to the west. The sun was dropping toward the high dirt backstop, just a little to the left of the target boards. All around was green grass, bathed in the golden glow of that enormous late summer sun. The sky had cleared almost completely and was a perfect kind of blue, and by the time I was really getting going, it seemed most of the others had left. The last shooter on the centerfire range to the south of me must have been hardcore; I think he fired two shots for every fifteen of mine. I suspect he was waiting for his heartbeat to return to normal after walking back and forth to change targets on the three hundred meter range.

And so, again, shooting became the solitary, ironically quiet, excitingly tranquil experience it always was with the air rifle in the basement, but this time, with the beauty of creation all around me. Warm light battling cool air. Squinting against that fiery star as I fixed my eye on the front sight post, trying to steady the tiny black dot, fifty meters away, just on top of it. Everything is quiet, even unnaturally so with the (mandatory) hearing protection on. Pierced by the clean crack of my rifle and the occasional deep boom of the big-bore to the south.

I stopped a few minutes before the range closed, standing now in a scattered and satisfying mess of brass casings on the cement pad. I swept them up. Plus a few others that someone else had left without cleaning. Put my rifle back in its case and got in the car.

Mists were starting to creep across those remote country roads, and by the time I hit the highway, the beginnings of a sunset were taking form in the west. "A scarlet thread stretched beneath the gathering dark," Rich Mullins once called it. I rolled the windows down to smell the chill in the air.

And I left the radio off. All the way home.

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Be Still and Know

24 August 2010

These past few mornings have been the first since summer came that I have driven to work in darkness. Granted, I started coming in earlier; I'm on the road at five-thirty now, but even so, until recently it was at least dawn by that time.

Not so anymore. It's black when I start the car, and the sky is just blueing by the time I arrive, just a couple of minutes before six. No shadows have yet been cast, and there's a new quiet to these mornings.

When I was fifteen, I had a job at the McDonald's in Spruce Grove. Most of the two and a half years I worked there was completely forgettable, but I remember very clearly some of the winter mornings I opened there. I forget exactly what time we had to be there, but it was around five, if memory serves at all. My dad would usually ask me, the night before, if I wanted a ride in the morning, and I almost always declined.

It had to be a forty-five minute walk. A long way, through the center of town and up by the highway where there was no sidewalk. You had to just walk on the shoulder where the snow was just getting deep. Trudging would be the best word for it.

And so it was that Christmas Eve morning, a little before five. It was probably twenty degrees below freezing and there was just a little snow falling. I was on the side of the highway and the sky was pitch black and the road glistened in the orange glow that the streetlights cast on it. And it was wondrously quiet. In December, birds don't sing and leaves don't rustle. And on Christmas Eve, no one travels the highway west of Spruce Grove at four thirty in the morning. The snow, in the absence of wind, came almost straight down and softly lighted on the ground without impact. I was a very rare and beautiful kind of alone.

It was like I hoped never to arrive and for the sun never to rise. I could have walked on in that dark stillness for ages.

These mornings now are reassuring. Though it comes with bitter cold and no small amount of inconvenience, that stillness will return. The slight chill in the air as I walked from the door to the car and the world between me and the sun were its first heralds.

The wind still rustles the leaves. It's a ways off yet. Give it time.

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Never the Highlights

4 August 2010

You never can tell what it is about a vacation you're going to miss afterwards. In this case, after camping just north of Drumheller for a few days, it's the faint hiss of the propane stove and the gurgle of my percolator making my coffee in the quiet of the morning.

Honestly. It's that sound.

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In Both Feet

21 July, 2010

The Roman Catholic Church just can't seem to keep itself out of the news these days. For a minute there, things were sort of quiet, after Pope Benny made his statement that the child abuse cases were a result of sin within the church, not without, and that "forgiveness is not a substitute for justice". It was a step, albeit a small one, in the right direction, though miles remain to go. Even so, the critics quieted down for a little while, and seemed to be waiting. And watching.

What were they waiting and watching for? This, apparently.

I've had a couple of discussions regarding this now. What shocks me is how normally reliable media have treated this case. Both the New York Times and Time magazine ran articles online making the claim that the Vatican considers the ordination of women just as morally despicable as child molestation. Naturally, a lot of people are bent out of shape over this one.

One commentator made the observation that the Vatican seems to never miss an opportunity to shoot itself in both feet. While I'd hesitate to disagree, this one just doesn't seem to be their fault.

The Vatican never said the two offenses were equal. Where the confusion comes from is the fact that both are mentioned in the same document. That was enough, it seems, for the fine folks at the NYT and Time to presume the worst and announce it to the world with full conviction. They seemed oblivious to the fact that the two offenses against Canon Law were put in completely different categories, and were in no way equated morally. Kind of like bank fraud and rape - both are illegal, both will land you in jail, but there's no question that one is more reprehensible than the other from a moral point of view.

Of course, even if I'm right about this, the world still has plenty to be angry at the Vatican for. It's beyond dispute now that they deliberately concealed child molesters and shielded them from investigation. Of course, that has given some the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is a welcoming pervert club, and that they protect pedophiles because they like to. In reality, "protecting" pedophiles was an unforgivable by-product of their primary goal: protecting the Church from scandal. I doubt they were thrilled at the necessity of their actions (though I realize that necessity was only perceived, not real - they could have done right from the beginning).

I make no excuses for their past sins. It seems even the Pope himself has a lot to answer for, and I quite sincerely hope that he does. In the meantime, Benedict XVI has done more than any pope before him to tackle the child abuse issue head-on. He hasn't gone far enough yet, but the pieces seem to be moving on the board. Whatever else I may vehemently disagree with him on, he may yet do some good in the course of his term. Hopefully, more good than harm, though it remains to be seen.

Some would wonder why I would defend the Catholic Church, given that I'm not actually Catholic. My reasoning is something like this: they're what the world looks to when it thinks of the Christian faith. I'm associated with the Vatican whether I like it or not. And if they can get their house in order, they stand to do a great deal of good. I'm all for them getting their house in order, and I won't stand by and watch them get kicked while they're down, which is what this latest news story amounted to. Let them deal with their issues. Let them make their changes. Put pressure on them where it is needed, but don't needlessly throw rocks at them when they're trying to put the past to rights.

"Speak truth to power", goes the old Quaker saying, and Paul often reminds me of it. And amen to that. We've had enough of lies from all sides.

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And Here I Thought I Was Sort of Honest

8 July, 2010

They say you shouldn't let it build, like it's the pressure you really need to be concerned about. And they say you should make yourself heard, as though failing to do so was just a disservice to yourself and your own interests.

But that is so self-absorbed as to be nearly pointless. It's not the disservice to myself that I ought to be concerned with. It's the dishonesty of the thing, the lie of it that I tell without even realizing I'm telling anything at all, let alone a lie. Walking along calmly and upright as though there were no pit bull sinking its teeth into my heels. Not even glancing as the mosquito pierces my skin.

I don't know where I learned to lie like that. Or where I learned to think so little of people as to suppose that they aren't tough enough to take the truth. Perhaps it isn't condescension, though, but fear of them, of losing them, of making them think less of me. Any number of explanations, all of them probably worthless.

There is so much to be undone. Fixing and wrecking and fixing again, with an unclear picture, in this case, of what the whole thing ought to look like. If the creature is limping, the parts are in place...

No, I don't really know what I'm doing. But I'll try really hard to do it.

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The newly-discovered curse.

30 June 2010

It's fair to say a pattern has been established now. Every time I have a store order something in for me, either because they are out of stock or only get it in by request, there's a problem. It never goes smooth.

The first striking example was my telescope. The store had none in stock, but said they could get one. I ordered it, and was told it should take a couple of weeks. A month and many inquiring phone calls later, I was told that the distributor had them backordered from the manufacturer. A few weeks after that, it finally came to light that the manufacturer was no longer building the thing. I ended up with a different scope altogether.

I think that was where it started. It has happened a few times since. Now it's happening with my CZ 455.

I don't think I have ever ordered something and had it show up on time, without headaches.

Anyone wanna buy a curse off me? Five bucks.

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17 June 2010

We've all heard before that people change. Over the years I've become more and more convinced that people don't change as much as we suppose, and that the other adage, about leopards and spots, is probably much closer to the mark. Spots, though, do not a predator make.

Some things are more engrained in a person than others. Someone who just doesn't care about other people has a long road ahead of them before they start to. But a lot of things, little things, are more malleable. Bad habits. Not like smoking or excessive drinking, but things like hitting the snooze button too many times every morning or not putting things away when you're done with them. Or certain predispositions, perhaps to distraction, or procrastination, or forgetfulness. That last one always crept up and bit me. Actually, I've got some tooth marks from all three of them, but talk about people who can't remember to do a damn thing, and yeah, my name comes up.

It's not that I have a bad memory. In fact, it's quite good, in certain ways. I can remember lines from movies verbatim, and song lyrics stick with me. I think it's an auditory thing. And I can memorize information fairly well, like when studying for a test. Ask me a question, and I can dig the answer out of my brain. The problem for me has always been remembering things without a cue. Ask me to pick up milk on the way home from work and I'm hopeless. Ask me when I get home "what were you supposed to pick up?" and I'll be able to tell you, immediately. But there in the car, with nothing reminding me that there's something I'm supposed to be remembering, the milk is doomed to remain unpurchased in the store cooler. You might as well just hang a sign on the front door that says "MILK", just so that I can turn around and go back to the store before I even walk in. This would spare everyone the grating conversation and dirty looks that would be necessary if I actually entered the house.

I've got past a lot of that, though. But not because I changed. Those who know me well know that I wear a ring on the middle finger of my right hand. The one I have now is my second (the first was stolen - long story), but it is in every way identical to the first. I made both, the first at work and the second on my little lathe in the basement, out of Nitronic 50 stainless steel. Both were made to fit the middle finger. It turned out, though, that the rings would fit my index finger as well, though they never felt comfortable there.

That discomfort, as it happens, was useful. It first occurred to me a day or two after I had, yet again, forgotten some task that needed to be done, which had created no small amount of inconvenience. I don't remember what it was now (quelle suprise); I just remember feeling very frustrated with myself, sick of my own unreliability. I tried to think of ways to deal with it. For many, the solution to forgetfulness is to write things down. But that does no good if you don't remember that there's something you're supposed to remember - you won't look at the piece of paper to check what it is.

But then something hit me: in an adaptation of the old "tie a string on your finger" trick, I moved the ring from my middle finger to my index finger. It felt weird. It was supposed to. And sure enough, remembering whatever it was I'd needed to do became astonishingly simple. That weird feeling was like a constant reminder that there was something I was supposed to remember. It worked again and again.

I did it for months without my wife noticing the ring's subtle migration. What she noticed was that my memory had markedly improved. She didn't see a contrived sort of system or method; she saw a more reliable husband. And that was what mattered.

I'm still exactly the same forgetful person. But I found a way to deal with it that took the sting out of the weakness. I didn't actually change; I learned. There's no sense in the leopard just wishing, trying to live as though he has stripes instead of spots; the poacher with the rifle will just chuckle when he pulls the dead cat out of the tall, vertical grass. Better to understand the spots and figure out how to work with them. And that's why the spots on the leopard sometimes don't matter. Maybe the leopard can't change, and maybe that's okay. Because the leopard can learn.

I think I've been wearing that ring five years now. At first, I made it because I liked it. Then, it became a practical and important part of living my life. Now, it gives me a little hope that perhaps some of my other shortcomings could also be rendered inert, and a little more willingness to try.

I don't aspire to be a perfect leopard. I'm just learning to work with my spots.

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3 June 2010

I'd almost forgotten how much I loved shooting.

She's a fine piece of work, the Slavia 631. A .177 spring-piston air rifle, built by CZ in the Czech Republic. Low power and suitable for a basement range, but far and away one of the most accurate rifles in its class (and certainly in its price range). This is not the BB gun of "A Christmas Story" - she's a hefty bit of wood and steel built for the enthusiast who appreciates quality and precision.

I had taken the homebuilt aperture sight off the rifle to try to make some drawings of it, and had never put it back on. So it had lay locked in its case and inoperable for a long time. I don't know when the last time I'd put a pellet through it was.

I'd only meant to put the sight back on the rifle, in preparation for our trip out to the cabin; it was already getting late and I had to work the next day. But, as it seems is the case with anything in the basement, it turned into a somewhat longer affair. Sighting in a rifle is never just sighting it in. You spit some lead out of it for fun, too. It's inevitable.

My own experience with shooting sometimes makes me marvel at the near-complete association made between guns and violence. I know few things more tranquil than my own shooting sessions. Everything becomes about being still and slowing down, about generating a silence broken only by the sound of the shot itself, a loud thwack in the case of this rifle. And then it is quiet again, as I calmly break the barrel and put another pellet into the breech, consciously trying not to move too quickly and increase my heart rate. I cannot understand how some can see only violence in this zen-like activity. The world melts away as I look down the barrel over the sights, and patiently wait until my body settles and the rifle steadies and my lungs are just newly relaxed.

Of course, the groups were shaky after so long, with a lot of "flyaway" shots landing an inch or more from the ten-ring. But the groups tightened and the flyaways became less frequent after a few dozen shots. It started to come back to me, the attention to breathing and sight picture and trigger pull and hold. Spring-piston guns are particularly sensitive to how you hold them, since their recoil produces not only backward motion but also torque; you've got to hold them exactly the same way, with exactly the same pressure on every point of contact between the rifle and your body, shot after laborious shot.

And with the returning skills came the elation and the frustration, those companions with which every shooter is familiar. The disappointment that blankets you when you walk up to the target and find that the group is broader than you thought it was, and the wry satisfaction that lights on your face when it's tighter. Every group with one effort a little further from the mark than the others taunts you like a dare to go back to the line and reload. And back at the line you try. Over and over again. To stand more firmly, to grip the rifle more consistently, to breathe more precisely. And above all, you promise yourself that you won't let the next shot break until everything is perfect.

Usually, I find out that I don't have that kind of patience.

But a tight group in the paper is worth all that effort and more. It's not about the holes or the damage. It's about the intention, about exercising will at a distance, about not missing the mark. It is about achieving with precision something so deliberate. To do exactly what you mean to do. To achieve the goal with no wandering, though gravity and your respiration and your pulse and fatigue all align their wills against you.

My ego is far too fragile for me to dare make a list of all the things I meant to do. And even in those things I achieved, so often what actually materialized was something near what I meant, in the general area of. Seldom exactly. Even at my age, I'm still not that good at this yet.

Because to do as we intend to is far more difficult than we would suppose. Harder still is to do it over and over again, at will. So I keep going back to the line and reloading.

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22 May 2010

Perhaps I should be used to this by now.

This was the first time, though, that I really had to try to explain death to my boy. He doesn't really get it. My wife told him Timmy was dead, and that we would bury him in the backyard. This actually kind of excited the boy, simply by being something he got to do that involved the crab.

Our son had always loved that little creature. Any chance he got, he wanted to be the one to feed him, carefully lowering the dish full of veggies onto its spot on the sand. Sometimes he would mention Timmy's name when he so much as saw us cutting up something that the crab liked, like strawberries.

I'd had Timmy over five years. My wife had actually bought him for me after the death of another crab, Hagrid, who was a pity purchase from a pet store. Hagrid had been in rough shape when I bought him, and I knew his chances were slim. I spent about three weeks trying to nurse him back to health before he finally gave up. The next day, I think, my wife came home with a tiny little crab, not any bigger than a marble, who eventually grew into the beast you see above, nearly the size of a mandarin orange.

But all three of us found ourselves in the backyard this morning, crouched around a hole in the dirt saying our goodbyes to the little crab. The boy was the one who shovelled the dirt back over the body. Then he asked if Timmy would wake up tomorrow.

I told him no. For the fourth time.

So long, Timmy. We'll miss you.

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12 May 2010

You're finally starting to say the right things and point the finger in the right direction. It's a start. I can only pray you'll put your money where your mouth is and follow through on this.

Because we need you and yours. Not just for your sheer numbers, but because whatever and however great our differences, at the end of the day we are under the same flag. The rest of us need to be able to feel like it's a flag we want to be under. The world is watching to see what exactly that flag represents, and all of their eyes are not on us. They are on you.

An enormous chance lays before you now. There is so much to lose and so much to gain. Don't flinch. As forgiveness is no substitute for justice, talk and sentiment and statements on airplanes are no substitutes for action.

Now's the time for you and your very fine hat to show us what you're made of.

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6 May 2010

Sometimes your greatest allies are the unlikely ones, the ones you never expected to find beside you on the same side of the barricade. It's even a little humbling sometimes to turn your head and see the face of your old enemy, rifle in hand, wearing perhaps a bemused or ironic grin but no less invested in the new task at hand. You both wear scars that you likely gave each other. Your sense of moral superiority, perhaps overdue for a thrashing, gets knocked down a peg or two. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," the saying goes, though I'm not sure where it really comes from. And that's the funny thing about some enemies: they fight just as fiercely beside you as they ever fought against you.

We need this to happen to us once in a while. When our old, or merely presumed, adversaries surprise us, when we finally discover that unexpected common ground, there's a little bit of our badly-beaten but precious faith in humanity that is restored, almost always at the expense of our own sense of self-righteousness. None of us has a monopoly on the moral high ground; our harshest critics and most vocal opponents probably share our stance on something and would gladly storm the gates alongside us, given the right particular battle.

It forces us to think better of others. And when we do, something else unexpected happens: we realize that it brings us far more happiness to think well of someone else than it does to think well of ourselves. That self-righteousness carries with it both an emptiness and a subtle bitterness that we don't even realize is there.

Nick Cave might have been wrong. Perhaps people just ain't so bad. Sometimes.

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26 April 2010

So the whole family dropped off to sleep at around four in the afternoon yesterday and took a little nap that lasted until seven. Three hours. Which meant there was no hope of getting the three year-old to bed at any sort of reasonable hour.

But little glitches like that sometimes carry in them the potential for a wonderful break from routine, or present opportunities that are normally absent. It was mostly dark, and the sky was fortuitously clear. So I quickly set up the telescope in the parking lot of the complex.

I'd been looking forward to doing this since the time I first learned I was to become a father. He seemed ready now, old enough to discern what he saw in the eyepiece and understand, sort of, what it was. I had flipped through astronomy books with him before, and looked at the pictures. He knows a photo of Jupiter when he sees one, and often asks where it is when we're outside at night.

It all came together last night. He was awake, the sky was clear, and I had planned on getting the scope out anyway. I held him up off the ground, and he seemed to know what to do, maybe from watching me. Adjusting his head, trying to figure out how to get his eye right up to the eyepiece. A wide grin right from the first look, which was a rather unimpressive view of Venus. But even just that little white ball enthralled him. I pointed to it in the sky and told him that that was what he was looking at.

Next came Saturn. He saw the rings. Then the moon; he learned the word "craters". Then he asked to look at Saturn again. Then asked again for the moon. Back and forth. Held his little action figure up to the eyepiece so that he could take a look (Submarine Man needs to see the solar system, too).

The smile never left his face.

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20 April 2010

She's up and eating now, after a week of recovering from the turmoil of getting out of her old skin. She looked so thin last night, so frail, when I dropped the cricket into the tank and sat down to watch, to make sure she was strong enough to hunt. But she didn't falter. She sat motionless as a stone until the prey was within striking distance. Then finally, swift and sure and with ferocious grace, she struck.

The insect was lucky the first two times, having found the remains of Bella's shed skin, still in the burrow, and darting beneath it. But Bella knew the cricket was there, and just waited like a sentry. The cricket always moves eventually, and the motion reverberates through the soil to the listening spider. And she seldom misses. Between her astonishing speed and surprising force, the hunt is a foregone conclusion as soon as the cricket hits the tank.

Thomas Merton once mused that the hawk knew its business. And in much the same way, I sometimes envy this spider, for she knows exactly how to be exactly what she is. She has a clarity of purpose and a certainty of means. She doesn't need to seek those things as we do or agonize over their existence. She senses the tremor in the earth and knows exactly how it ought to be struck. When a new skin is ready and the world is warm and moist enough she knows how to get out of the old one. No one taught her, and she will teach no one. She knows her business.

My grasp on what I am is tenuous at best, and my knowledge of how to be it is, in my own estimation, comically lacking. But I muddle through. And watch spiders.

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13 April 2010

So Bella pulled a surprise molt on me last night.

I used to always get warning, back when her tank was upstairs on the main floor, because my toddler's running around would stress her out enough that she always developed a bald patch on her abdomen. When a molt was imminent, it would turn black, the new hairs underneath becoming visible through the old skin.

But the stress was exactly why I moved her tank down to my office in the basement, where the boy doesn't run around. It worked; she seems much happier and less troubled down there. The downside (which is really an upside) is that she doesn't get that bald patch anymore. So I didn't see the molt coming. I just happened to look in on her last night, and there she was, sitting next to an old skin, and looking tired.

There was a white, ugly-looking stump where one of her legs should have been. I don't know how it happened, but she lost one in the process somehow. Severed right at the cephalothorax. It'll grow back in time, but she's stuck with seven for now.

Fortunately the wound had clotted, and wasn't bleeding anymore. Bleeding can kill a tarantula; they don't have muscles like we do, but instead move their bodies almost hydraulically, using changes in blood pressure to articulate their limbs. Which means if a spider loses too much blood, or becomes otherwise dehydrated, they may not even be able to crawl to the water they desperately need.

But I think she'll pull through. She's tough. Here's hoping.

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5 April 2010

You'd be amazed how cooperative a three year-old can suddenly be once you consent to address him as "Dino Piranha". And if you go as far as to refer to his mother as "Mommy Dinosaur" and yourself as "Sharptooth", you can get the kid to finish nearly everything on his plate.

This has been my life for a few days now.

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2 April 2010. Good Friday.

We stripped the altar at the church last night. Right at the end of the service, after the eucharist was finished; it's how the Maundy Thursday service ends. I don't know how old the practice is, but it represents the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples in Gethsemane and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers before his execution. The hymns appointed had all been sung; my work on the piano was done, and the priest asked me quietly if I could help him, along with two others, with the somber task. I had not expected to be part of it.

Against the reading of a plaintive psalm (I think it was Psalm 22), read aloud from the back of the nave by the assistant, we went to work. Everything behind the communion rail that wasn't bolted down was taken. The chairs the assistants and the priest used, the brass crosses on their posts, every hymnal and prayer book and water glass. The microphone stand. The massive Bible and Prayer Book.

The assistant's deep voice and the solemnity with which he read made the whole event decidedly eerie. The linen cloth that always covered the alter was folded ceremoniously and taken away. The bread and the wine, already blessed for the Good Friday service, were taken from their place and moved out of the room altogether, down the short corridor and into the sacristy. The doors of the cabinet they are normally kept in, built into the wall behind and above the altar, were left open, making the absence of the elements glaringly and disturbingly apparent.

And as all this went on, everything else was quiet. All those who had attended sat silent in the pews, watching. I could not help but notice the looks some faces bore; somber, pained even, like what was happening, and what it symbolized, was just beyond the edge of comprehension.

And once everything was gone and the reading was finished, the lights were turned off and the whole church fell into darkness and quiet and emptiness. No one spoke. Most, I think, were kneeling. After a minute or two, slowly and one by one, people got up from their pews and quietly shuffled to the door at the back.

Goodbyes were spoken in whispers at the door, even though there was no one praying or otherwise engaged in the church at the time. It was just understood, somehow, that quiet, if not total silence, should be kept.

This morning was the Good Friday service, carried out in front of a bare altar. The bread and wine from last night were to be used entirely, so that none remained. Some of us were given two or three wafers at communion. Once the eucharist was finished, there remained no blessed bread or wine anywhere in the church. As far as I know, this is the only time of the whole year at which that ever occurs.

I cannot wait for Sunday. When the glad shout of Alleluia! returns to the dismissal. When the solemnity is finished and the altar is restored. When things come back to life.

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26 March 2010

Sometimes you've got to wreck a thing a little before you can fix it. And sometimes that means that you've got to fix the thing a little first, just so that when you wreck it, you don't wreck it beyond repair.

And that first fixing can look so forced, so artificial, so oblivious to the actual problem, because it doesn't address the problem at all. It can't. The thing won't yet survive the damage that addressing the real problem will do.

So you tighten the bolts. You change the bearings and you clean out the filters. You sand down the rusty parts and paint the whole thing shiny again. You talk about the weather and ask about the trip. You pour your efforts into anything that can be made better without making something else worse.

Only then, when the whole shabang is sturdy enough and might stand a chance, do you take the axe to it and start cutting out the part that really went wrong in the first place. The sledgehammer and the blowtorch do their merciless work, and you fight with the last fasteners that hold that troublesome element in place, wrenching it free with all the finesse of a wolf pulling the flesh off its kill. There's no other way to get it out. And it's only because of all your other, seemingly unrelated, work that the whole thing doesn't crumble to pieces in front of you; it holds together. It bends, it flexes, it groans and grumbles and complains, it shudders and shakes under the blows of your tools, but it doesn't fall apart. It holds.

And if you've done it right, when the whole thing lies broken again, you'll find yourself looking down at something that is, without question, worth fixing. Because you, and everyone else around you, can see it as it always could have been. The damage doesn't look so bad now. 'It just needs a new whatzit, that's all,' people will say. And they're right. They're endeared to it now, and want to see it brought back from the edge. Even the adjuster wouldn't write it off now.

The surgery is over; there's a nasty-looking wound, some blood has been lost, but the heart is still beating.

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14 March 2009

So on Friday night, I bought an electric guitar.

It's beautiful. A wine-red Epiphone Special II, not an expensive guitar at all (probably one of the cheapest on the rack), but it's the one that beckoned to me the most. Reminds me very much of an old Gibson L6-S I once had the pleasure of playing.

This makes the slippery slope even steeper. Because I now have an acoustic guitar (with a preamp in it), an electric guitar, a digital piano, a proper microphone, and an iBook with GarageBand installed. All I need is that little USB interface to jack all of these things directly into the computer, and I'm set.

Like I've got the time. Another hobby is about the very last thing I need, except maybe a blow to the head with a fax machine. But who cares.

As a half-crazy French-Canadian machinist I once knew used to say, "I very like it."

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11 March 2010

Sometimes your life explodes like a grenade, all violent and dramatic and loud. Other times, like now, it kind of explodes more like a ballpoint pen.

You don't even notice it's happened, at first. You feel your finger slip but you think it's just the oil on your skin. Then you notice a tiny smudge of blue. And quickly, to your horror, you realize that half your hand is covered in the stuff, and it's gonna take ages to get it off.

Of course, it happens right at the critical part of the lecture, right after the prof says something like "Write this down and go home and memorize it, because you will need to understand this from here on in, and it's complicated".

And I just know, I'll deal with my right hand and then find ink on my elbow. I'll think I'm done, but there's some on my chin.

It's tiring. But you've got to get the stuff off.

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1 March 2010

The past month, perhaps, has been filled with motion. Some things moving madly, others speeding up slightly, and some, perhaps most importantly, just stirring quietly to life.

And those stirrings, those might-be-beginnings, are both promising and frightening, because I don't know how to do this. I've wanted this, even prayed for this, over and over again. And now it might be here, and I'm stricken with indecision and uncertainty.

I knew a girl named Jill once. A quiet sort of thing that mostly kept to herself, but with a uniquely bright smile and a sarcasm that carried no hint of malice, once you got her going. An understated jeans and t-shirt style that kept her from standing out too much and a face that neither wore nor needed any make-up. I don't think she ever knew that I had a little crush on her, back when we were fifteen or so. I think now that perhaps it was the way she didn't stand out that I liked, just grinning at the jokes the rest of us made hanging out in the church basement at youth events, seldom making any of her own.

We graduated, went separate ways. I found out later she went to college somewhere, and took up carpentry in her spare time. I'm told she turned out to have a natural talent for it. That, and an unswerving devotion to both her faith and the compassion it taught.

I don't recall now when the accident happened, or even how many people perished in it; I just know Jill was one. I believe her sister was another. There was a van, a few passengers, and an Alberta highway. I think they were on their way back from Caroline. That's all I remember for details.

What I remember most was her funeral, held at the Alliance church in Spruce Grove because the Baptist church we had attended wasn't big enough to hold that many hundreds of people. People I hadn't seen in years. Paul Kemp came and said hello and told me he was the organist in the Lutheran church on ninety-sixth street now. The day was full of those tense conversations, with people you haven't seen in years, and are happy to see, but not like this. Circumstances, you know.

Her father was surprisingly composed, I recall, as he spoke from the podium. It was clear he was grieving, but he spoke as though he had a peace unheard of in a parent who is in the process of burying half of his family.

They had printed, on the back of the funeral program, a quote that had been found, handwritten and with no name beneath it, among Jill's papers when they cleaned out her room. It read:

When you come to the edge of all you know
And are about to step out into the darkness of the unknown
Faith is knowing that one of two things will happen:

Either there will be something solid to stand on,
or you will be taught how to fly.

Those words never left me, imprinted below the photo of her smiling face in my memory. I've carried them with me for years now. I've seen variations on the quote; I know it wasn't hers, but it hardly matters. It was what she left to me, and to God-only-knows how many others who found themselves in that church that day.

And now, in the midst of these stirrings and the uncertainty they bring with them, those words come to me yet again. And I'm happy, in a way, to be at the edge of what I know, because in this case, what I know will simply no longer do. I'll be happy to walk off that edge once I find the courage to do so, and those words create a stirring of their own in me.

So thank you, Jill. For today, and for all of the other days in the past few years when I needed the memory of your life and the way you lived it. You have not lived - or died - in vain.

Be at peace, child of God.

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20 February 2010

It might well be that this week has been the week of perpetual annoyances. If it isn't stupid people, it's stupid machinery. Generally speaking, the week has been kind of stupid.

It started with the car. A minor fender-bender became a wretched headache; the body shop agrees to do the work, has the car for over two weeks, then hands it back to you with new, and totally unrelated, problems. All they needed to do was fix the back hatch and the bumper. Why does my remote starter no longer work? And why are the automatic locks all screwed? And why does the dome light not come on when I open the driver's door? And above all, why are you telling me to just "take it back to the dealership and have them reset it"?

At the dealership, the verdict was pure gold: somehow, in the process of fixing the tailgate of my Outback, the body shop guys had damaged some wiring under the dashboard.


Of course, the body shop pitched a line that sounded something like "No, really, liquor naturally evaporates from bottles like that - we had nothing to do with it. It just happens sometimes". Eventually, ready to drop a wallaby into a wood chipper, I agreed to split the bill, which wasn't all that big, anyway.

This on top of a sudden bout of overtime the bosses have asked me to work, and a particular machining job that should have been simple (you noticed the way I put that, did you?). In fact, the shop had made these parts before. We even had CNC programs for them. Everything could have gone so smoothly, if only a few things had gone differently. One being if the, um, very nice person who made them last time had written anything down. "Oh look, tool ten in the program cuts this nifty profile inside the part. I wonder what boring bar he used as tool ten? Do you think he remembers?" That last question, in this shop, is almost always rhetorical.

After an hour or so of wasted time trying to figure it out, it eventually came to light that the tool that had been used last time had since been epically trashed during another machinist's momentary lapse of reason and good sense, caused by what I'm positive was a very lovely daydream in front of his Okuma.

Now, I understand that this particular tool costs something to the tune of two grand or so, but there was a reason we had it in the first place. Which, of course, begged the question: why did we not replace it after its violent and hideous-sounding (trust me, I was there that day) demise? Turns out, the decision was made to replace the tool when the need arose.

Here's how that plays out: a job comes up (like the aforementioned "should have been simple" job) which really sort of requires this tool. We order one, and it is delivered "in a timely manner". A manner so timely as to make you believe that the PO was sent from Edmonton to Stockholm in a capsule tied around the neck of the Neo Citron dog, and that, upon receipt of the order, the supplier had dispatched the tool across the Atlantic in a canoe manned by a rotary telephone and a potato, with a note attached that just read "Dear Canada: please give this to Travis", believing that statistically, it was likely to end up in the Maritimes somewhere.

The point is, if I wanted to get the job done on time, I had to find another way to do it. And I found one. A way which was efficient like western governments and easy like putting contact lenses on a badger.

And after fighting with that job for four hours this morning (which was Saturday, by the way), I came home, headed to the basement shop, and madly started machining the last few parts for a little project I'm doing for my wife (it's a device for holding a photography reflector), having to swap the little 4-amp fuse from the lathe between the lathe and the milling machine, because at some point last night, I blew the milling machine's 5-amp fuse and had no replacement. There was no time to get one today, and she needed the thing for lighting tests tonight.

After all of this, the car still has that dome light problem, I'm pretty sure that boring bar was never ordered, and I still don't have a 5-amp fuse. But I'm driving the car, I finished those parts at work, and my wife has her reflector boom.

I call it a win.

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13 February 2010

Tonight, in the basement of the church, I found a piece of paper with nothing but the following, written in a child's hand, on it:

Wake up
Bedtime snack

Faerie schedule.

Does nothing happen between supper and the bedtime snack?

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6 February 2010

It's true: your spouse never stops surprising you.

Today I learned that my wife of seven years can't stomach the sight of Silly Putty. We got one of the little eggs of silly putty as the toy with a kid's meal when we ate out today, and when I opened it for my little boy, my wife visibly grimaced, shuddered, and turned away, covering her mouth with her hand.

I mean, really, is Silly Putty that vile? I always liked it. Apparently she feels differently.

I didn't know that until today.

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2 February 2010

"That very night in Max's room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are."

Maurice Sendak
Where the Wild Things Are

I really didn't lose that little part of Max in me that just wanted, on some days, to be someplace far away and very different where I was in charge without question and everything else actually feared me.

And I'm betting you didn't, either.

But here in this place someone loves me best of all and my supper is always hot, whether I wore my wolf suit today or not. So tonight, it's OK if trees don't grow out of my bedposts.

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29 January 2010 (the wee hours)

Bono said there was a silence that comes to a house when no one can sleep; but the greater silence, in my experience, comes when everybody but me is asleep. The not-quite-three-year-old who didn't take a nap today dropped off to sleep with little trouble, and a diligent but exhausted wife was in bed before even her son.

I am sure that it is quieter when they are here and asleep than it is when I am home alone. Perhaps because I tread more softly as not to wake them. Yet even the animals seem to keep their peace at such times as this.

Add to this the still of winter outside my window, and you have a rare kind of quiet, the kind that makes standing at the sink doing the dishes a contemplative act. Going over my list of tasks for the night as the sink fills, a strange content falls on me. Perhaps because of the stillness in the house. But it is strange insofar as it comes when so many mundane tasks lay before me.

These are not the things that get in the way of life, it finally occurs to me. They are the stuff of life itself. Washing dishes and picking up toys and sweeping floors and tending to paperwork are necessary and natural parts of living in a corporeal world. And there is a shift in my perspective that makes sense of the content. If this world of matter and energy is not second-rate, if the creation is truly loved, then every element of existence in it, every necessary part of making one's way through a mortal life in it, every meal and every shower, every bit of the work of my hands by which I make my living and every pause I take to enjoy its many beauties, is a hallowed act. Like a monk scrubbing the monastery floor, washing the dishes becomes almost an act of worship.

If even so mundane a task as this can be hallowed, what then, O Lord, is unimportant in Thy sight?

I finish the dishes, wipe the counter clean, and set to a general tidy of the kitchen. In a pile of flyers that has come in the mail, I find a new issue of a magazine I subscribe to; immediately sidetracked (my wife will testify I'm prone to it), I spend several minutes perusing the headlines. And then I snap back to the task of tidying with an almost comic feeling of guilt. Not the normal I-should-stop-goofing-off guilt that comes when you get distracted doing monotonous work - a little greater than that. But not a heavy moral guilt, either. Rather, the sheepish kind of guilt that you feel when you find your mind drifting to last night's movie during the Sermon.

The countless toys in the living room don't even seem to test my patience when I get to them, but I don't notice this. Not until I am halfway through cleaning the first of two rabbit cages do I realize that I am not even hurrying. I've stopped to pet Dusty, rubbing the top of his head with the back of my index finger. He presses into it; rabbits love that, even though they almost always look frightened. This chore is not in the way. It is not an interruption, as it almost always has been on any other night. It is not a duty that delays a thing; it is the thing itself, right now, in this moment.

If this, too, is worth doing as unto You, what dare I deem trivial?

The rabbits tended, I sit before my laptop in the living room and tend to an insurance matter. I find myself being unusually thorough. It takes only a few minutes, but in that time all three cats have gathered in a circle around me, waiting on their nightly treat that is, in fact, just a vehicle for a medication that only one of them needs.

Treats for the cats. Then finely, dare I say lovingly chopped orange pepper for Timmy the Crab. For what are pets, after all, but creation entrusted to our care in a special arrangement? 'Until you have allowed your heart to love an animal,' Anatole France said, 'a part of your soul remains unawakened.'

Frustration and annoyance just didn't show up tonight. Could every day be like this?

The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night, and at the last a perfect end; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be with us this night, and for evermore. Amen.

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28 January 2010

Just watched the promo video for the iPad last night.

How is it that Apple does not yet own the world?

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24 January 2010

Nearing the seven-year mark, I can't help but smile for where I find myself now, against all prophecies and warnings of boredom and mediocrity and divergence. Those naysayers are for me like so many doomsday preachers, screaming from a soapbox and barely able to contain their eagerness to say I told you so. Like I'm just not even really in the particular world they are lamenting the end of.

It isn't hope or optimism that comes when I think of it. Rather it is the exhilarating quiet that falls on you when you see that things are in their place. The comfort of a confidence in things to come. The fermented fondness for the scars of storms weathered and the matured appreciation for the DVD and bag of chips of a Friday night that is blissfully routine.

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18 January 2010

So Pat Robertson has said his piece regarding this earthquake in Haiti. Apparently, it was their own fault for being such bad people, and God is punishing them, like he punished America for hedonism with 9/11. And once again, his word is being taken by many as the "Christian" stance on the matter.

And I think I can see why. There were two striking comments made over on regarding this guy, and they're worth attention.

First: "Pat Robertson has a long history of making this sort of claim, most of which have only contributed to his influence and resulted in little blowback from mainstream Christians."

And second: "I understand that many Christians are reluctant to admit that Pat Robertson and others like him speak for them, but this does not change the fact that he does indeed speak for them."

The thing is, both of these statements are completely true. Which is a problem. Why do comments like his receive such little blowback? Of all the Christians I know, not one of them agrees with Robertson on the "reasons" for this earthquake. At best, they do try to take the stance that "he doesn't speak for us".

But he does. He is speaking for us, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with him or not. He makes these statements under the banner of the faith we profess. And we are, for all intents and purposes, powerless to stop him. So then, what do we do?

If you can't stop someone from speaking for you, then start speaking more loudly for yourself. And it will take more than a reactionary "No, I don't agree with Pat Robertson". If we do not share his stance on Haiti, then what stance do we take?

It seems to have gone unnoticed by the world that churches everywhere are calling madly for donations and support to go directly to relief efforts in Haiti (of note is ACT International). And yet somehow, one man's comments have constituted "the Christian stance".

We would do well to ignore Robertson and spend more time just helping. The authentic Christian stance should not be "Pat Robertson is an idiot" (though that may well be true). The Christian stance ought instead to be "Hustle with the help, because a lot of people in Haiti are suffering".

Do what you can.

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12 January 2010

Very often, the difficult decision that a parent faces is not "Do I run over there and physically stop my child, or do I try to discourage this behaviour verbally?" but rather "Do I run over there and stop my child, or do I quickly but quietly grab the camera?"

Usually, it comes down to a question of sequence. First, photograph the behaviour, because it is hilarious. Then put a swift and stern stop to it and tell the kid to never, ever do it again.

I love being a dad.

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11 January 2010

It is as though we forget, in winter, what a thunderstorm feels like. Not in the sense that we can't recall it, but in the sense that it leaves our minds and must be consciously recalled. There's that part after the rain has started, but is just spitting a little, not really coming down, as though the clouds haven't yet committed. And then there's my favourite part, that swift crescendo when the sky opens up all at once, the air is suddenly thick with water and the massive drops, moving earthward with real force now, make impact with elegant violence.

It is the closest thing to the feeling of prayer that I know of. If someone were to ask me if I find prayer relaxing, I would have to give them an emphatic no. It is not. At least not usually. And why should it be? To be a point of intersection of Heaven and Earth, to stand on the fault line, is not something we should expect to be calming. It is elegant and violent and tumultuous and wrenching and pulls you apart like it's making room between the two halves for something. Like a freight train passing right through the middle of you. The beauty of it is astounding.

Of course, individual results may vary.

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5 January 2010

I knew I should have just gone to bed last night. And I certainly should have known I would spend more than half an hour down there when I headed to my office in the basement, but I don't know that it would have mattered. It had been too long already.

The one string had been broken for I don't know how long. Over a year, I'm sure. I hadn't even taken the thing out of its case for ages, let alone played it. At times I wanted to, but the broken string slammed the door on that, and on any given day, buying new strings just wasn't on the agenda. And the room in the basement was so packed and cluttered that the guitar wasn't even easy to get to.

But now a couple of the things that were filling that room have disappeared, out of my way. And with a package of new strings that my lovely wife bought me for Christmas (thank you, honey) on another good friend's advice (thank you, too) in my hands, last night seemed just fine. It didn't feel right, in fact, to wait any longer.

And so I played. Remembering, with difficulty, songs and arrangements I'd loved at one time or another. Ignoring the sting in my uncalloused fingertips and the fret buzz I couldn't quite get my hand to eliminate during bar chords. Singing like there was no one else in the house, even though there was.

I never put the guitar back in its case. I found the old guitar stand, stood it in the corner, and let the instrument sit upright on it, displayed, in full view from anywhere in the room, something important that had been brought back from disrepair.

And important things have fallen into disrepair. Not all of them are as simple to fix. Some are not fixed with paint or metal or just-wanted-to-see-how-you're-doing phone calls or long letters explaining where we stand, though those events might be a necessary part. There is a necessary plunge into the unknown that, on any given day, just doesn't seem to be on the agenda. And the plunge doesn't come for Christmas or a birthday. You have to lace on your boots and step out into the cold and go get it.

It doesn't feel right to wait much longer.

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3 January 2010

If Ikea isn't a Behavioural Study masquerading as a furniture retailer, it should be.

First, their shopping carts. Most have two fixed wheels at the back, and will only travel in more or less the direction they're pointed. Not at Ikea. All four wheels on the cart swivel, which means you can point it straight ahead of you but sidestep to the left or right, and the cart still moves with you.

For three hours in that place today, all I could think was 'This is awesome. I feel like I'm flying a Viper'. And it would almost be a shame if there wasn't somebody watching on a surveillance camera, noticing how I would take unnecessary turns and circle things off-axis for no practical reason, all the while with my toddler in the cart.

Second, store layout = rat maze, complete with hidden shortcuts for the extra-smart. Not much more to say there.

Of course, then there's the assembly of Ikea products. I wonder sometimes exactly where in the packaging they put the camera. The funny thing about Ikea directions is that they actually do tell you exactly how to put the thing together, but they don't warn you about the subtle little never-in-a-million-years-would-you-notice detail in the picture that you've overlooked, and which won't become apparent until six pages later and usually involves a lot of disassembly and bad language to correct. Combine that with the fact that fourteen of the nineteen parts look virtually identical to anyone who isn't a mechanical engineer, and Ikea's senseless and irrational bias against the use of written instruction dissuades them from labeling the parts with stickers or something that say 'A' or 'LEFT', and you have hours of entertainment for clandestine observers, and heaps of fascinating data for psychological analysis.

Seriously, Ikea. If you're not watching us, it's a tremendous waste of an incredible chance.

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2 January 2010

You know, I had planned on making a first post to this new version that described all that was new within it. But I'm not going to. You will find the new features on your own. And probably a few inadequacies, too, so there's really no point in making any fanfare.

So let's forget about what version 2.0 does. What it is perhaps is of far more significance. It is a new beginning, a redefinition. This is not a makeover, not a facelift. Rather, it is as though the heart and soul of Broken Parabolic have been taken out of a sick and dying body and put into a younger, stronger, and more capable one, one which might stand a chance of letting it become what it needed to. Not in the manner of the young and strong elbowing the aging and weakened out of the way, but rather like a changing of the guard, the fresh spelling off the stalwart but tired.

And it feels good to welcome in this new form. I've been told by those who know me closely that I sometimes hang on to things for far too long, be they material or not. I had not thought of myself as resistant to change, but it turned out that I was. One might even say that I sometimes developed an irrational affection for things of no real significance.

Perhaps I'm getting over that.

Version 2.0 is not about a website. It's about finding my feet, seeing the path ahead, and the way in which I might walk it. It is a part of becoming.

And that is one of the many beauties of creating. You cannot create without recreating yourself, at least a little. Because when you are finished your creation, you will have become the person who created it. It sounds redundant, but it isn't. 'Helical' might be a better word.

So here's hoping the transition goes smoothly. But it probably won't.

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