||Wednesday, December 31, 2003
A trip to Ottawa...
Marianne and I visited Ottawa a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time Id been back since my school trip in Grade Seven; the one where Id bumped into Brian Mulroney as he emerged from the parliament buildings for a quick impromptu meet and greet with our school group. Im not speaking metaphorically when I say, "bumped into"; I was looking down at the ground as I walked and rammed head first into his stomach. I stumbled back, looked up, and, realising who he was after a few moments, thought that he really did have a very pronounced chin, the size exaggerated by the effect of foreshortening created by my small stature. I noted that not only was his chin very large, but his skin was also extremely dry and flaky. To this day, these remain some of the few memories I have of the man that is now better known as the father of Ben Mulroney. I shook his hand and got out of the way as my classmates began to crowd in.
This time I was going to Ottawa on business; a hastily organised three-day visit to conduct training. I elected to drive instead of flying so that Marianne could accompany me, and we left on the Tuesday morning. I had a bad feeling about the whole thing as soon as we set off- my car was in need of an oil change and thered been a heavy snowfall the night before.
I pulled into the parking lot for the Lube Place I always go to but I wasnt able see any of the attendants who usually wait by at the bay doors. Since they werent around I figured that they might be closed and pulled the car around to the front door to check. I walked in, spotted someone in the pit, and yelled, "Are you open?" I didnt recognise the guy who responded; he looked about fourteen and said, "Yeah." in a way that I construed as: "Of course! What does it look like?" I went back to the car to pull around to the rear bay doors, but I felt the back tires of my station wagon slide out from under me as I turned. Id underestimated the overnight snowfall, and overestimated the effectiveness of my new snow tires.
Marianne noted that the fourteen-year-old attendant was laughing his head off at us from behind the garage doors.
I got out of the car and slammed the door. Presumably realising that he might be about to be recruited to assist, the kid did a bad job of hiding at the back of the shop. I had Marianne move into the driver seat while I pushed. The wheels continued to spin, the engine revved uselessly and I noticed that we were stuck on top of an ice- covered drain, and probably wouldnt be able to get out unless I a. transformed into a much stronger version of myself, or b. used my brain. I opted for the latter (why do I always have to opt for the latter?) and went into the shop to find something that I could wedge under the back tire. At first the kid (Ill stop with the fourteen year old comments, my fourteen year self would hate me using it as a qualifier. 1 ) said that he didnt have anything we could use. But, thankfully he noticed a pile of cardboard pieces on the shelves by the entry doors that seemed to be awaiting exactly such an eventuality. I shoved the pieces under my rear tires, got the traction I needed, and was able to pull the car off the ice and around to the back of the Lube Shop. Ill spare you of the details of the oil change
Wed left home later than Id planned and I knew that we really needed to arrive in Ottawa by three pm at the latest, mostly to give me some time to acquaint myself with the training material that was being put together that morning by my manager. (Like I said, this trip was hastily organised) In spite of the fact we were we were well past rush hour, we hit a traffic jam while on our way across the top of the city, and were stuck on the 401 for more than an hour. Once wed crossed into the eastern part of the city and had passed Ajax, Pickering, Port Hope and were on our way to Belleville and Kingston the driving was significantly better. But I was beginning to have precognitive flashes of a week full of fever, pain, and, really, no fun at all. Mariannes health was declining rapidly.
She covered her legs with my jacket and by the time we exited on to the 416 and then off of St. Laurent exit to our destination in Ottawa, she was in very rough shape.
Mapquest directions will always get you where youre going, but the routes provided are often needlessly overcomplicated. In this case the directions instructed us to perform a U-turn in order to reach the hotel. Not one to flaunt the law (lie) even if Mapquest says so ("Im sorry officer! Mapquest told me to do it!") I remembered that someone had told me that the hotel was right next to the stadium. So I just followed the signs to the stadium instead. Why cant Mapquest provide user-friendly instructions like that? Step 1: Follow signs to Ottawa, Step 2 Once you get to Ottawa, follow the Stadium Signs until you get to your hotel.
We made it into the lobby right on time, at about ten minutes to three. Enough time for us to go up to our room, leisurely change clothes, read over the training documents and maybe even manage a quick dry run or two. Things were looking up.
"There should a reservation under Hunt" I said to the receptionist.
I called my manager to find out why there was no reservation and she told me shed have to check with the person who took care booking the rooms, and shed call me back in fifteen minutes. I sat down in the lobby with Marianne and felt my blood pressure increasing exponentially, even with Mariannes gentle affirmations that I should:"Relax Take deep breaths. Dont worry about it, the presentation will go fine. You know it will."
I pictured a classroom full of strangers regarding me warily. Who is this Anglophone Toronto schmuck anyway? I wondered how long it would take before it dawned on them that I didnt know what the hell I was talking about. Realising that negative visualisation might not be the most helpful thing for my stress levels at the moment I cut off that particular train of thought.
"Youre right. Itll be fine
I know what Im talking about. " I said mustering confidence. Sure you do, you always know exactly what youre talking about.
After about the fifth phone call to the reception desk, the receptionist finally called out: "Theres a phone call for you, Mr. Hunt."
Luckily the other hotel wasnt far away and we booted it over there, signed in and went up to our room where I quickly changed shoes (no time to change out of my jeans into more formal business attire), said goodbye to Marianne and jetted off to the office.
Upon entering I said a friendly "Hello!" to a few people to Id met at company events, not forgetting to add in that quick little Look at me, Im a five-year old! wave that I always do. I didnt exactly receive the warm reciprocal looks that Id been expecting and it was obvious that none of them remembered me. For the sake of my fragile ego, I switched to my High-level corporate emissary on official business persona, also known as Mr. Aloof and Detached Guy. By the time Id finished meeting the managers the opportunity for a dry run Id been hoping for was gone. I hastily printed the materials and began to head off to the training room.
"Oh," said the IT support person, as if it was just a passing afterthought that didnt have much to do with anything at all: "We havent been able to login to the training environment for a couple of weeks now. Ive been working on it, but I havent exactly been able to figure out what the issue is just yet. Hopefully Ill have it up and running soon, but Im done at five, so I cant make any promises."
Somehow, "hopefully" used along with "I cant make any promises" in the same sentence never fills me with much hope.
"Oh," I said, really meaning: "Oh shit." An out-of-commission training environment effectively rendered my trip to Ottawa pointless. I called up our support person back in Toronto and I went into Lets kick some IT ass and get this shit taken of care of PRONTO! mode, of course, using what I thoughtwas the most calm and diplomatic tone of voice at my disposal.
"Look," said the support person back in Toronto wayyy too calmly, as if reacting to a decidedly not-calm person: "Youre just venting right now." Venting? Was I venting? I was my most calm and diplomatic tone of voice, wasnt I? Sure I was taking this problem seriously, I take everything seriously. But me, venting? No way!
And thats cool
" He continued, still calm, and almost annoying sympathetic, "I understand where youre coming from- youre frustrated." Well, yes, I suppose he was right, I was feeling frustrated. His cleverly empathetic approach was working its magic.
"But if you really want me to help you then youve got to tell me what I can do to help, because, right now, youre not telling me anything. Just tell me slowly exactly what it is you need me to do for you
I probably deserved the slightly condescending take it easy tone; I usually do. What really disturbed me, and continues to disturb me, is the distance between how I think Im behaving, and how others see me as behaving. Its like my ego is out there doing its thing in this complete fantasy world, thinking its knows exactly what its doing. But once and a while the ego gets a glimpse of the way its actually functioning in society, and thats a very scary thing. Theres absolutely no correlation between the fantasy ego world and reality. I think Im the puppeteer, when actually Im the silly bouncing marionette.
"Okay." enough with the psychological crisis schtick, "It tells me: login manually revoked. I dont know anything else other than I need the computers to work in an hour or Im screwed." He told me hed try his best and I half- believed him.
I introduced myself to everyone as they entered the training room and hastily tried to finish collating the documents theyd need. Beginning the Power Point presentation that my manager had put together that morning, I felt on very shaking ground. I may as well have been reading along with them and I tried to follow the points that the presentation was trying to make. I couldnt escape the feeling that some of the slides had been simply been included as a joke:
I got a call about a half-hour into the presentation letting me know that the system should be working. After two hours of intensive training the trainees we losing there look of reticence, and responding well.
During my first lunch break sessions I jumped back into my station wagon and found the nearest Swiss Chalet. It was bloody freezing out and all the concrete of the buildings and the pavement seemed to had blotchy patches or white stains frozen into them by the sub zero temperature, and plumes of rapidly cooling air rose from manhole covers and rooftops.
Upon entering our hotel room a wall of superheated-air hit me. Marianne moaned from the darkness:
"Ohmygawd" She continued, "I cant believe how incredibly bad Im feeling. I think this is the sickest Ive been in my life. I was seriously thinking I was going to have to call for an ambulance for awhile there but I was worried because I thought Id be too delirious to be able to make the call."
I tried to comfort her while I gobbled up as much of the food as I could. I was starving, but Marianne wasnt up to eating. After relaxing for a few minutes I put my jacket back on, kissed Marianne good bye and headed back to the office.
With all the things that had already gone wrong that day I cant say it came as too much of a shock to find that someone had locked the training room door on me. The projector and the computer were still on; my backpack and my papers were spread around as if I was in the middle of doing work. Why would anybody have locked the door? Of course, none of the people left in the office at this late hour had a key. I remembered that Id the cleaning ladys stuff in the lobby on my way in "What about the cleaning lady?" I said to the night manager.
"You know, now that you mention it, the cleaning guy was just up here, Ill try to find him." With that the night manager ran off. I decided to head down to the lobby to try to find the cleaning lady myself, and followed the sound of the vacuum cleaner. The dreadlocked guy who Id nodded to on my way out to lunch was in the lobby, vacuuming.
"Excuse me!" I said wildly, "Did you happen to clean the sixth floor?"
"Good. Good. Okay, Okay. Did you lock any doors up there? Im asking because the training room door is locked now and I really need to get back in there!"
He shook his head emphatically. "No, I didnt lock any doors, I dont do that."
"Okay thats fine, you didnt lock it, okay. Do you know anyone that would have the key then?"
"No, we dont get any keys for anything and we dont lock any doors. Were not allowed to."
The logic worked, so I stopped bothering him and took the elevator back up.
In the meantime the manager on duty had got a call and had been told where the master key was. Problem solved. I made passing mention to the night manager of a clever observation Id made while entering the room. But in order to get real satisfaction of displaying my superior powers of deduction and observation Id have to gather all the suspects into one room like at the end of Agatha Christie novel:
"So, Mr. Cleaner
you claim that you did not lock the door to the training room and, more to the point are not allowed to lock doors. How, then, is it possible that when I returned to said room on the night in question the garbage can that had once been overflowing was now
empty! Does it not seem logical that whom ever emptied that garbage can was very like the same person who locked the training room door!" A hush fills the room: "I ask you, who else but a cleaning person would take the time to empty a garbage can while while I was out of the office on lunch? Well, what do you have to say in your defence, Mr. Cleaner?"
"Im on contract and make seven dollars an hour."
"Good enough. Im sorry I wasted your time."
When I got back later that night was still in rough shape and we spent a horrible night broiling under the blankets, the neon lights of the St.Laurent Shopping centre shining in our window.
The next morning I headed off on mission to get Coffee, Donuts and a variety of drugs from Shoppers Drug Mart. Marianne was still feeling like KaKa, and I knew that I would soon be following suit. The plans wed had of visiting our friends and their new baby, and of seeing all the Ottawa sights in real life seemed like Pipe- Dreams. I reconciled myself to the fact that wed have to make do with the scenic paintings of Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal full of ice-skaters and that hung above the bathroom sink.
We spent the day in the hotel, ordered room service and watched Vicky Gabereau, and Passions. Marianne had a hard time eating anything, because everything tasted spicy to her: "The ketchup tastes spicy, the potatoes taste spicy, everything tastes spicy! Does it taste spicy too you?" No, it didnt taste spicy to me. It didnt taste good either, but I couldnt say that it exactly tasted spicy.
The training that night went well, with no significant incidents to mention, and by next morning Marianne was the one feeling better, something at least partially attributable to the fact the inevitable had happened and I was now coming down with whatever she had. I realised I was getting sick the night before and gave myself a liberal dose of NyQuil, and woke up with what I can only call a "Nyquil Hangover"
This day went pretty much the same as the last, watching Vicki Gabereau talking to Kurt Browning about his latest TV special, called "Gotta Skate" or something like that. Marianne and I argued over whether Kurt a nice guy or not. I maintained that he washaving met and talked with him briefly a very few times. Marianne maintained that shed seen him from a distance a couple of times and he bugged her. On Passions that doe-eyed overly earnest girl who always cries her eyes out was at it again. As always, Ethan was spurning her advances, even though he would have no excuse not to know that they were destined to be together. Mariannes food still tasted spicy and both of us were still coughing all over the place.
That night I discovered that I actually felt somewhat better as long as my brain and body were occupied with the training. The next day Marianne was feeling up to it so we decided that we would brave the frigid air, and at least make one feeble attempt to see Ottawa. We headed off in the general direction that I believed the Parliament Buildings to be, and somehow managed to find them without much of a problem.
We took the bridge over to Hull and I talked Marianne into checking out the Museum of Civilisation with me. Id read in the Ottawa Tourist Magazine that the Dead Sea Scrolls were on display as part of the Treasures From the Dead Sea Exhibit. Ive seen parts of the scrolls before, at the ROM I think it was, but, really, you never can see enough tattered pieces of parchment in Aramaic, can you? Id also been looking forward to checking out the architectural design of the building for many years.
The building was full of wonderfully textured curves ("So that the Spirits wont have any corners to hide in." explained one of the trainees that night) just like in the pictures Id seen. Once inside, the Great Hall was the highlight, full of Totem Poles from the West Coast, and divided into Houses built using the authentic techniques of each Nation. "Make sure that you go inside the houses." Said the guide at the top of the elevator. "A lot of people dont know you can and just walk right by them." They housed an array of fishing and hunting tools, clothing, looms, examples of baskets, boats and ingenious Whale Harpoons made of tendon, bone, with sharpened muscle shells as blades, and hollowed out wood-pieces as floats. A huge variety of ceremonial masks representing everything from animal spirits to traders were on display. According to the sign next a group of them a superstition advises that ceremonial masks always be kept out of direct view when not being used, and these masks were behind a wall of wooden slats
After checking out all the aboriginal art we were treated to an amazing view across the river to Parliament Hill, the landscape covered in snow and frost, the crystal spire of the National Gallery in the distance.
Next it we took a quick trip through the Canadian Postal Museum and, once we had enough of seeing stamps and mailboxes (approximately two minutes) we exited. We were happy to come across an exhibit spotlighting Italian-Canadians and their culinary, design, musical, sports, fashion, artistic and scientific contributions to Canadian culture. This one was fun, because, being Italian, Marianne was able to give me a running commentary for much of it.
"A lot of this stuff Ive seen in my Nonnas kitchen," she said while looking through the food section of the exhibit. Earlier, when we passed the Sicilian playing cards under glass I had been reminded of the only time I had ever played the game, you guessed it, in Mariannes Nonnas kitchen, while eating raw almonds, black olives, parmesan and Italian bread. I miss Mariannes Nonna.
There was a lot of stuff other than food (but there was a lot of food). Upon entering the exhibit there was an intricate hand made wooden miniature of a cathedral covered with carvings of saints; another section featured portrait work by a mosaic artist, a life-size sculpture of an immigrants suitcase and an amazing Sicilian cart covered in red and gold decorations. Id never seen one of these before. My favourites were the doll dioramas depicting traditional Italian-Canadian activities: the slaughtering of the pig, picnics, pasta making, playing music and games in the barn with the body heat of the farm animals keeping them warm. Marianne wasnt able to enlighten me on these much though, having never spent time in a barn or slaughtering pigs while growing up on the Danforth.
We were both beginning to lose steam, and decided to finish up with a speedy tour of the History of Canada exhibit. The impressive displays of Vikings, Voyageurs, Whaling Boats, New France, An Ontario town, replete with shops and a school, all flew by us. Actually, you can probably get a better idea grasp of the content than we did by viewing these virtual tours of the exhibit on the Museums website.
We never got to see the Scrolls. For some reason the exhibit didnt open until four. Id be back at work by then, so we headed back to the hotel and I went off to finish up my last nights training.
So, at least we got something out of our trip. No impromptu meetings with the Primeminister this time round, although according to the Ottawa Citizen Chrétien had been out and about playing at a local pool hall the night before, on one of his last days in office. According to one of the trainees at the office I was visiting at the worst time: "Ottawas great in the summer spring and fall, and once were really into winter its great, with all the snow and skating on the canal. thats when you have to come, really. Right now were in the kind of blah in between period, which is too bad for you."
The next morning we paid up and headed back home, both feeling incredibly blah.
1While reading John Hankiewiczs comic Tepid this morning this quote reminded me: "Nothing is more contemptible than mocking an adolescent boy." Or mocking anybody I suppose. Sorry Brian and Ben!
posted by Alan
Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Added a new Bonus Strip to the strip archive today called Driving Home. I put Bonus in quotes because technically, these arent really bonus strips anymore but I have yet to think of a more fitting title.
To give some background, most of the Bonus Strips in the archive were a solution to a goof up when drawing the first couple of Maciek and Fiona strips for Exclaim Magazine. I thought that the editor said 5 inches by 5 inches for the size ratio. I finished off the first two strips, brought them in to show him and was informed the size ratio shouldve been 5 inches by 5 ¾ inches tall. Not looking forward to totally redraw the strips, I realised that ¾ inches gave me just enough space to fit in little Bonus Strip, which had the added benefit of giving me a venue to experiment, have fun, or just write a short comic that had nothing to do with the continuing storyline I was working on. I stole the idea from old comic strips that I enjoyed - Krazy Kat started as a margin strip for The Dingbat Family, and Thimble Theatre had Sappo, and there are lots of other examples (Millionaire does it).
It also served as comic-strip bet-hedger, so if someone didnt like M & F, hopefully theyd enjoy the bonus strip. If they didnt like either, well, I guess there was even more for them not to like! I did get some positive feedback on the Bonus Strips by themselves, and really enjoyed the format, so Im reviving it, but without the work-intensive strip above it. My goal is to totally remove the work quotient from what Im doing which will hopefully enable me to update these quick one-offs without too much aggravation or unrealistic expectations. Yes, like an Ontario Power Generation Executive, the elimination of all work and quality controls is my new over-weaning philosophy, which if I have planned well, will lead me to a blissful state of Nirvana shortly (and a million and a half bucks would be nice, too) and allow me to truly Stand Still Like the Hummingbird. Or not.
posted by Alan
Sunday, December 07, 2003
How a 1950 Alan Dunn New Yorker Cartoon inspired 'Fermis Question'
If you have any interest in SETI or UFOs at all, youve probably heard of Fermis Paradox, which in conjunction with the more well known Drakes Equation provides the mathematical starting point for much current debate around the possibility of ET being out there. It also pertains to UFOs, and the debate over whether or not they take to drop in and pay us a visit from time to time.
Apparently, during a early 1950s luncheon conversation with Edward Teller, Herb York and Emil Konopinski at the Fuller Lodge, physicist Enrico Fermi asked the simple question "Where is everybody?" This question, "posed appropos of nothing" as Herb York remembers, apparently drew laughs from his physicist buddies. The topic of Flying Saucers had been brought up and dropped much earlier in the conversation, but everyone at once knew that by everybody what Fermi meant was extra-terrestrials. As the first hand testimony in the letters recounts, this question lead to some quick back-of-the-napkin type calculations and an apparent paradox: if we do have technologically sophisticated galactic neighbours
. ah, you know what? Ill just let SETI head Seth Shostak explain it:
Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within ten million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire. Ten million years may sound long, but in fact it's quite short compared with the age of the Galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years. Colonization of the Milky Way should be a quick exercise.
So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn't see any clear indication that they're out and about.
So to paraphrase: "Theyve had lots of time to get here, so why arent they?"
This leads us to this document, which is an account of the origins of Fermis question put together by Eric M. Jones of the Los Alamos National Labratory, and created for a 1985 conference entitled "Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience." The PDF includes the letters he sent to all three of the surviving physicists present and their recollections of the lunch.
Included in the introduction by Jones (page 2) is a copy of New Yorker Cartoonist Alan Dunns 1950 gag cartoon, that sparked the idea. New York papers at the time were reporting that public trash cans were disappearing, and as Flying Saucers were a new and recurrent topic in the papers of the day. Dunn depicted the trashcans being abducted by little green men into their waiting flying saucers.
Id post the actual Alan Dunn cartoon, but Im worried that the Men in Black (the New Yorker cartoon licensing department legal representatives) would show up on my door tomorrow morning. Its not available on the Cartoon Bank (although other Dunn cartoons are) and I doubt I could afford the Premium Rates the site says they charge for archived New Yorker strips.
Link courtesy James Easton, via his Yahoo UFO Research List
posted by Alan