Cross Border Dial Tone Blues

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 12:45 p.m.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about holiday gift items such as cell phones and cameras.  Over the course of the last week, I’ve had the occasion to realize that if you want to give someone a headache, give him or her a cell phone.  When it comes to service, cell phone companies figure that, once you’re in their clutches, they have you over a barrel, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.

In Europe, it seems to be understood that one’s own country is not the only country in the world, and that someone who owns a cell phone would probably need that piece of equipment to communicate with others when abroad.  North American companies seem to think, however, that no one goes over the border.  Canadian and American companies have some sort of perverted agreement that if you use a cell phone out of your respective country, they have every right to charge you the most extreme prices that could possibly be allowed: over one dollar per minute of air time PLUS long distance charges.  I find it impossible to believe that the cost of making a phone call goes up exponentially as soon as it crosses the border, but it seems to me to be a very profitable excuse for mobile phone providers.

I have to go down to New York City to visit my father frequently and I’ve found only one  American phone company that seemed to have a plan that wouldn’t lock me into a contract, Virgin Mobile USA.  As long as I topped up my phone with twenty dollars once every ninety days, I could keep my phone number.  This seemed reasonable until I found out that there was one big hitch.  I lived in Canada.  Virgin Mobile USA would not accept a Canadian-based credit card.  That seemed crazy to me.  The only way to top up your phone if you are a Canadian with an American cell phone is to go down to the United States, buy a phone card and call in the pin number on the card or enter it on Virgin’s web site.

For a variety of reasons, I was unable to visit my father and was getting emails and messages on my answering machine from Virgin that I had better top up my phone or lose my number which meant buying a new phone, telling everyone that I had a new number when in the USA and going through a great deal of inconvenience. 

 Luckily, my son had to be in the United States so I asked him to buy me a card and give me the pin number so that I wouldn’t lose my phone.  He did so.  When I entered in the pin number, the web site told me that it was not a valid number.  So, I called Virgin Mobile USA’s phone number. 

A very hip computerized voice answered my call and offered me a variety of options, none of which would allow me to speak to a living person.  I screamed and yelled until finally the computer figured out that I wanted a “live adviser” which I would presume to be better than a dead one.  My live advisor found out that I lived in Canada and instantly suggested that I call Virgin Mobile Canada.  It took nearly ten minutes to convince her that I was using an American phone with an American number which I only used in the United States of yes, you guessed it, America, and that Virgin Mobile Canada would just send me right back to Virgin USA.

When I asked to speak to a manager, I was put on hold where the music of choice was rap music, and the music system was badly in need of repair as it crackled and changed volume repeatedly, probably a great means of getting people to hang up as one can only take that kind of torture for so long.  I never got to speak to the manager, by the way, she was busy!

I was finally advised to fax or email a scanned copy of the card which my son kindly did for me.  Two days later, I got the following rather terse email reply:

Hi Mrs. Goldfinch,  While reviewing your attachment, the top up card that was purchased is for Verizon Wireless Prepaid and not for Virgin Mobile USA. I apologize for any confusion. Thank you.

My son told me that he bought the only Virgin card in the store and as far as confusion goes, my son has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry.  He knows stuff that I can’t begin to fathom.  If he can be confused in the process of buying a phone card, what hope is there for the rest of us?  More-over, THEY HAVE MY MONEY.  If a computer can answer my phone call and transfer my call to a so-called live advisor, why can’t it transfer thirty dollars from Virgin Wireless Prepaid to Virgin Mobile U.S.A.?  It is a mystery, and the ways of cell phone companies are mysterious to any consumer who can’t fathom how they can get away with such murder.  Miraculously, they do.  Taking someone’s money without giving anything in return is what most consumers would call robbery.

Apparently, a new company, Wind Mobile, is being allowed to do business in Canada and rumour has it that the competition is going to make cell phone prices drop.  The media has advised people not to lock into contracts, now as prices will be dropping so keep that in mind when you shop, and remember, cell phones are the gifts that keep on taking…your money, that is.  

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Christmas Electronics - Know What You’re Getting Into

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 7:26 a.m. in , , ,
The one thing that is sure to botch up Christmas morning is an electronic gift. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here. Everyone is a good mood opening presents delighted with the new laptop or cell phone or iPod and then the inevitable happens. It doesn’t work. It’s incompatible with your operating system or a part is missing or you were too tired to read the instructions properly so you messed up the installation. Electronic presents are an invitation to frayed tempers and general crankiness. Yet we keep on giving these because they’re flashy and they say that we care about the person enough to spend a lot of money on him or her.

It goes without saying that some of you who read this column will be swayed, as I am, by flashy television advertising and will be in the market for a cell phone, camera, iPod, etc. I know that I was fairly impressed with my American niece’s iPhone and started dropping a lot of hints to my long-suffering family…until I found out that hidden cost of the iPhone, The Plan.

I am a fairly light cell phone user. During the week, I hardly use it at all as I have a well functioning land line both at home and at work. I tend to turn it off. Teenagers and young adults do not understand this as they keep their cell phones perpetually on and forget to charge the battery. This is something that adults fail to understand when they try to call their children. It is an electronic generation gap.

The other part of the cell phone generation gap is cost. Neither of my adult children have a land line which is sensible because they are always on the go. So they are used to spending probably well over $70.00 a month for their phones. Given that my phone is usually turned off, $70.00 seems exorbitant but that’s what it will cost me to keep an iPhone alive, according to a column by the Globe & Mail and that’s just the minimum. It will cost more if I want to have voicemail on my phone (something that I like to have with a 90 year old father in New York City) and a reasonable texting plan which I need for my children who don’t live in the Townships anymore. Needless to say, I will be replacing my cell phone with something other than an iPhone though it saddens me as it is great to text with and you have easy access to the Internet everywhere with it - if that’s what you want.

In the camera area, I must say that I am very impressed with my little Canon Powershot. If you know someone who is about to go on a trip, it’s a great little camera. The photos are reasonably sharp and the camera is very easy to learn to use. I got it just before I went to India, played with it for one weekend, and was banging off pictures for the rest of the trip.

The small size is a real advantage. I have become accustomed to lugging heavy SLR cameras whenever I want to take pictures and though these give you amazing versatility and a wide range of options when you take pictures, they are huge and when you take a picture, you stick out like a sore thumb.
When I travel, I like to take candid pictures of people on the street. India was great for this. With a small camera, I was often able to take the shot quickly and slip the camera back in my purse. The Powershot is light weight and its automatic functions make it very easy to do this. It’s true that the folks who had a heavy Nike SLR came back with sharper photos of the Taj Mahal but the bonus for me was two weeks of comfortable travel without a sore shoulder. Besides, I got some very nice shots of the Taj Mahal too so I’m not complaining.

So if you must shop for electronics, I’d say that a digital camera is a safe bet for a more relaxed Christmas morning but be warned that cell phones are a gift that keeps on taking all year long and make sure that you know what you’re getting into.

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And Then I went to India

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 7:23 a.m.
“You haven’t written a column in a long time,” someone mentioned to me in passing. Yes, that’s true and I have some good excuses. I was chaperoning a trip to a student conference in India which included a one week pre-conference tour. It took me two weeks to get over jet lag and catch up at work and being a procrastinator, it’s taken me about another two weeks to decide what to write about.

The good folks at The Record have asked me to give my column a focus and in the last few months, my focus has been the world online: the Internet, cell phones, and the new technologies that are related to that world. Of course, coming back from a land and culture that seems so different, almost the complete opposite of the one that we know and love in Canada, I want to tell you about it.

One way that I can merge both of those is to give you an edited version of an email home. Now, at the time that I wrote the email, it was about 5:30 in the morning and the sun was just starting to come up. The overnight temperature probably hovered at about 30 degrees and that estimation might be on the low side. Day time temperatures rose above 40 degrees and the days were utterly scorching. I was told that this was hot weather even for them in October and all I could think of was that it would be impossibly hot as a summer day in the Townships! Early morning and night were the most comfortable times of the day, particularly because my students and I were staying at a boarding school in rooms in which there was no air conditioning.

The heat alone made it difficult to sleep but the fact that I was actually in India made it nearly impossible to sleep. Even after a week of adjusting to the fact that India is nine and a half hours ahead of Canada, I slept very few hours a night which explained why I was often in the dormitory’s computer room at sunrise typing an email to my husband on vintage computers from the 1990’s. The following email, however, was typed on a hotel computer, equally as old after one of the most challenging days of the trip:
Hi again, 

It's 6:15 here so must be 9 something or  10 your time.

I went to the Agra Fort today and just as my camera battery was dying, we went to the Mother Teresa Mission where there were mentally handicapped of all ages and orphans. We were all scooping up infants and holding them. The babies' legs were like twigs. The baby that I picked up had a very runny nose and a big smile. I couldn’t help thinking how much his life might be changed for the better if I snuck him back into Canada, even though I’m too old to start childrearing again.

As I was bouncing the baby around, I sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to the baby and to a girl who looked very badly off. She begged me to sing it over and over with her hand gestures. She smiled so widely while I sang. I almost cried - it was an amazing feeling to give someone a moment of happiness just by singing a nursery rhyme.

 The worst moment for me was meeting the little boy, Rahul, who had lost a leg and whose other leg was bandaged and badly scarred.. The scar on his stump was very difficult to look at yet he had a very bright face with a huge smile. He was selling water to a train and the train ran over his leg. He was 10, 12? It was all I could do to keep from crying. The sister said that Rahul had been in the hospital for 6 months and then the hospital handed him over to the Mission. The sisters are caring for him but they cannot afford to pay for any further medical care which is worrisome because his other leg was bandaged and there was a large stain on the back of the bandage that didn’t look good to my untrained eyes.

I got some pictures of the mission and one of my travelling companions took a lot of photos and promised to share these with me. I think people need to see them. The sisters here are caring for what is considered to be the dregs of this society. We were all blown away.

We collected the equivalent of 400$ U.S. from our group so the visit was well worth it for the sisters of the mission. That might run the place for a month-they run strictly on donations.


I have to tell you that one month later that little boy Rahul is still very much on my mind so I have written to the mission asking permission to provide help, not an email, but good old fashioned snail mail. I have shown my school, friends and family the one photo that I have and many people are interested in donating money to see that he gets medical care and perhaps - and this is my big hope - a prosthetic leg. If not that, at least crutches that will help him get around. Right now, this poor little boy can only crawl.

I can’t help thinking that this is a problem that money can solve. You and I cannot help all the poor children that I saw begging on the street. If you saw Slumdog Millionaire, you have a pretty good idea of the brutality that children experience each day. One of my own photos shows a young girl with a baby slung around her shoulder who is standing in the middle of traffic in 40 degree heat and begging from car to car every time the traffic light turns red. I cannot help her though I somewhat callously took her photo from my seat on the air conditioned bus so that I could tell her story or the story of that moment to others. Yet I do know where Rahul is and I think that he can be helped.

I hope that the sisters agree to this and I hope that I can find the way to funnel money to the right organization who can help Rahul. It’s not enough to feel sorry; sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is and get a job done no matter how tough it looks at the beginning.

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YouTube – Tool or Time Waster or Big Brother

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 6:27 p.m. in , , , , ,
If you love film or TV shows or music videos or even stupid movies and you are hooked up to high speed Internet, you are probably half way to confessing your state of addiction to the web site, Youtube.com. Everybody shows up on YouTube sooner or later. You can watch both the United States Supreme Court and the Pope on this web site. Anyone who has a webcam, can play guitar and carry a tune has probably filmed himself or herself and posted the video on YouTube.

I am always amazed that no matter how obscure I think something may be, I will find a video of it there. In fact, when I was first let loose on it, I spent hours searching for old videos of Laura Nyro who was my favourite singer in high school and yes, Joni Mitchell too and found a lot of films to choose from. I’ve watched old episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on YouTube and looked at videos of San Francisco to help me with a piece that I’m writing. If you can’t be there, you can get a good idea of an area by watching a video of it.

Of course, there are issues of copyright infringement that get film and television companies a bit hot under the collar when they find their material illegally posted on YouTube. Viacom has sued Google for a lot of money. Where’s the profit in people having access to your wares for free? Apparently, even here, some companies have adopted an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude. One company, CBS, has allowed it and found an opportunity for making money by placing advertising in with the videos. Ironically, CBS is Viacom’s “sister company.”

While YouTube may be quite entertaining, there are some very real dangers that everyone should be aware of, particularly teenagers. We are living in an era when we are all Big Brother. Anyone who has a cell phone that is equipped to make videos can very easily film someone and post that film on YouTube almost instantly. So if you’re at a party and you stick the proverbial lampshade on your head and feel inclined to shimmy and shake to the delight of your equally inebriated friends, you may find that one of them thinks it’s an absolute hoot to post you on YouTube that night. The next day, you may think that film clip is humiliating and a prospective job opportunity might crumble into dust.

YouTube does have a privacy policy and people can request an offending video be removed but sometimes the consequences can become serious very quickly. At the beginning of August, YouTube was in the news as people were outraged by a video of three men in Saskatchewan shooting ducks and howling with laughter. They were finally arrested and faced conviction for breaking both provincial and federal wildlife laws. For these three, the consequences will live with them for a long time to come but of course, they were stupid enough to post the video in the first place so they have only themselves to blame.

As for the rest of us who prefer not to look like idiots for all to see, we will continue to find videos of children falling down or cats tumbling into toilets on YouTube. If you’re bored and you like that kind of thing, there will always be something to amuse you. A word of caution: if you’re at a party and you find someone holding up a video camera or cell phone at you, common sense would dictate that you drop like a fly and play dead. With any luck they will probably walk away. Stay still for a very long time just to be sure.

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Loving and Hating Wikipedia

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 9:24 a.m. in , ,
Wikipedia was founded in 2000 to be a free online encyclopedia in which anyone could contribute information. When interviewed on CBS founder, Jimmy Wales commented, “I mean, writing an encyclopedia as a hobby is obviously a fairly geeky thing to do. The real core thing that people believe in is free knowledge. So people can copy or modify it, redistribute it."

His belief that knowledge should be freely distributed has grown like a weed and the search engine Google has helped. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Search anything from rain to corn to Barak Obama on Google. The Wikipedia article on that subject will come up near the top of your list. To prove this to myself, I just typed the word Obama into Google and the Wikipedia article on Obama was third to the top.

No wonder elementary and high school students love Wikipedia. Who needs to go to a multi-volume encyclopedia and struggle with the alphabet when in two clicks of your mouse, you can have the information that you need for that pesky school project? Is this such a bad thing?

No…and yes. Wikipedia is great when it’s right and it usually is. According to one study done by the journal Nature in 2005, Wikipedia was only slightly less accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica. It averaged about 3.86 errors as opposed to Britannica’s 2.92. (Britannica did argue that the study was flawed.)
For looking up a quick fact, Wikipedia is great. When you want to know who the youngest president of the United States was or which album I Want to Hold Your Hand was on, Wikipedia is a fast way to get these answers. For more intricate search questions, the quality of writing can get in the way of comprehension. One teacher that I met at a conference expressed the opinion that the writing on Wikipedia is often over most students’ heads.

The problem with Wikipedia is that there is very little editing or proofreading. When I looked up the singer, Rickie Lee Jones on Wikipedia, I found an extremely poorly written article rife with grammatical errors and typos. As for fact checking, it’s a catch-as-catch-can situation. Other Wikipedia writers can correct each other’s articles.

This open editing can lead to vandalism. In one famous case, comedian Stephen Colbert changed an article in the course of his show and said that, “…any user can change any entry. And if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true." In another case, former Kennedy advisor, John Seigenthaler, Sr. was accused of being involved in Kennedy’s assassination. This was quickly corrected but other articles continue to be attacked. Birth and death dates have also been found to be incorrect.

Young people are often tempted to plagiarize text from Wikipedia into their essays as it’s so easy to copy text from Wikipedia and paste it into a Word document within seconds however the vocabulary almost always gives them away.

My verdict on Wikipedia is that it’s a great source of information but you should always look further. Other web sites can be far more reliable than Wikipedia and can be used to back up what Wikipedia has to say. If you’re a parent arguing with your child about using Wikipedia for a school project, just let your child know that a teacher will be far more impressed if they use a book (remember books?) as a source too. Books that are targeted toward a child’s age group will also be easier for them to understand.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is here to stay and as with anything else on the Internet, using it right will save time and may just help you win that argument that John F. Kennedy was the youngest president elected to office. Now go find out who the youngest president actually was.

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Heard it through the Grapevine…or Facebook

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 7:49 p.m.

I can’t believe Michael Jackson is dead.
Michael Jackson is dead?

This snippet of dialogue did not take place in a face to face conversation. It passed over the course of a few hours on the social networking site, Facebook. Millions of people all over the world are using free web sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and many others to communicate with their friends, family and with people that they may have never met. Through Facebook, I have tracked down and been tracked down by people that I knew in elementary school and high school and have renewed these friendships. Whereas Facebook used to be the exclusive domain of high school and university students, we middle aged types have invaded and we like it. Many writers say that the young will just move on to other social networking sites but one of my uses for Facebook is to stay in touch with former students and it’s working well for that.

Interestingly enough, social networking sites are now becoming a means of obtaining news and commentary and a means of mobilizing social action. In a short article on a blog for newspaper editors, Ellyn Angelotti pointed out “…that it is more likely that people would look at what their friends and social network would suggest, as opposed to editors.” I found a poignant example of that this week in relation to the way that I found out about the need to boil tap water in Lennoxville. I happened to check my work email address and found an email advising all employees that the water supply was contaminated with bacteria and that it would be necessary to boil our cooking and drinking water.

When I went on my Facebook page, I found a lively discussion going on by a few of my Lennoxville acquaintances in my newsfeed. In the case of the Lennoxville water situation, 5-7 people commented on how Lennoxville might have communicated the water situation more effectively. One person gave a brief summary of her visit to the borough office to express her concerns. In turn, others commented on this.

This is a local example of how Facebook is used the world over for discussion on the bigger issues. There are citizens’ groups, fan clubs, student organizations, etc. on Facebook who can also issue invitations to events to its members who can in turn simply click on yes-or-no buttons to indicate whether or not they will participate in these events.

While this looks very democratic, some countries - for example, Russia and China - are expressing concern at the way the Internet might be used to convey anti-government messages. There are many reports of citizens being arrested for email messages and postings that are perceived to be out of line. While no such threat appears to be apparent in Canada or the United States, North American critics of social networking sites have grave concerns about issues of privacy. Users of Facebook are no strangers to these discussions as the controversy of ownership of photos and text showed some months back.

With the advent of censorship and DDO attacks on web sites, both governments and independent groups with an axe to grind are finding ways to circumvent the democratic possibilities of the Internet. An interesting article on Internet and power in the magazine, Dissent, gave examples of government sponsorship of DDO’s in China and Russia which were able to crash web sites and private parties have been able to crash web sites published by gay organizations as well. We need to watch this situation very carefully and how North American governments will look to control the Internet.

Sites such as Facebook hold a lot of promise to help people stay in touch with another, particularly for people who are shut in due to physical disability. As baby boomers get older, Facebook will help us be in touch with the world and each other and if history is any example, we will not be silent.

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Changing the blog template: Learn and Learn fast

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 8:18 a.m.
Thanks to Sadie the Foodie,blogger extraordinaire and a former student of mine, I succeeded in finding a new template for this blog and then installing it.

This leads me to believe that messing around with technology is much like the old days of teenagers hanging out together with guitars in the 60s and 70s. You hear a wacky chord you like or discover that someone else knows how to play an approximation of Black Bird and then in today's parlance, you "copy and paste."

This kind of free association and learning is what the Internet is all about. People have a question, people Google the question and if people are the slightest bit discerning, they will find the answer from a reliable source.

I'm excited by this kind of learning. The sort that gives you the quick answer to the question and gets you running in the right direction. How much of this kind of learning is deep learning is another story. When we read news on the Internet, when we satisfy our curiosity about what's going on in the world, how much critical analysis do we actually get?

I'm not saying that it's not out there. There are many more pundits (far more learned than I am) who do provide a myriad of opinions and analyses as to what is going on in the world today on numerous websites. Do we read them? Do we take the time to go further than the one minute YouTube sound bite? Why should we when the sound bite is so much easier to digest than a 3 screen New York Times editorial?

Just today, I mentioned to my husband that I saw a headline that hog workers in Saskatchewan were coming down with a new flu virus. He was on his laptop too so while I meandered off to see who had written what on Facebook, he actually checked out the article that I referred to. This is what the first two paragraphs had to say in the article on the CBC website:
"Two workers in Saskatchewan's hog farm industry have tested positive for what health officials are calling a "novel" strain of flu virus and have fully recovered, government officials reported Tuesday.

Dr. Moira McKinnon, the province's chief medical health officer, stressed that the virus identified was "non-pandemic," adding that the two workers did not contract the H1N1 swine flu virus currently in the news."

Now if I had not bothered to read any further, I might go around spreading a nice fat juicy story that the H1N1 virus is mutating into a new form and just sharing the fear that goes with it like the gossipy Typhoid Mary that I am. Back in the 70s, without the communications technology that we have now, it was pretty easy to spread the rumour that Paul McCartney was dead. Imagine the havoc that we can wreak with the Internet.

The Internet can be used very successfully for finding out quick fix answers to why your iPod is frozen and how to find a lovely new format for that blog that you’ve been keeping but I am less confident in its ability to help us find a solution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine and what is the real answer to life, the universe and everything. Learning is more than finding out quick solutions to today’s snags. The Internet can certainly help us to communicate with others, to share serious information; we just have to be willing to take the time to do just that.

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There's No Place Like the Home Page

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 2:42 p.m. in , ,
I've recently been asked by the Sherbrooke Record to continue my columns but slanted toward older, novice users of technology. Here's my first column.

Welcome to a new and slanted toward technology version of the original Somebody’s Mother column. As a middle aged Mom type who loves gadgets, computers, the Internet, cell phones and all kinds of electronic toys, I hope to introduce you to some of the ways that technology can keep you informed, keep you connected, and yes, keep you entertained.

Since there’s no place like home, I thought it might be best to kick this series of columns off with the home page, that place that your computer goes to when you click into the Internet and get ready to dive into the cyber-universe. Many different websites will compete to get you to pick their site to be your home page. This only makes sense as the web page developers sell advertising space and they want you to get their message. While much of the Internet may be accessed free of charge (it reminds me of the old days of getting TV stations for free with bunny-eared antennas), advertising is what makes the Internet go and websites like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and My Space want you to click on their site as opposed to anybody else’s.

You can use a home page for a variety of purposes. Many people have a plain old Google search page as their home page but a home page can do a lot more for you than give you access to the world’s most popular search engine. You can get the latest news headlines, your horoscope, local weather, entertainment news, currency exchange rates, your favourite comic strip and so much more. If you have stocks and can figure out what your stock symbols are, you can have updates as soon as you turn your computer on. You can have the weather of all the cities that your family members and friends live in. As Canadians, we like to know about weather.

Putting a home page together is very easy and one of my favourite ways of procrastinating more important tasks is picking a new theme or background for my home page. Years ago, I chose Yahoo as my home page because it offered all the goodies that I just mentioned plus the possibility of picking seasonal themes. Google now offers the same possibilities at iGoogle.com. In fact with iGoogle, if you’re the kind of person who likes variety, you can have a different theme every day. There are people out there who apparently have more time for procrastinating than I do and they upload their latest designs. iGoogle allows you to pick Theme of the Day so that with little effort on your part, you get a snazzy page that someone has worked hard to produce. Once you’ve picked your content, there’s options for creating a colour scheme or if you’re an avid sports fan, you can even pick your favourite team’s colours. My own Yahoo home page sports a yellow and blue beach scene with colourful sailboats.

If you can click a box to check it off, you can make your own home page with the content that interests you. Have a look at both iGoogle and Yahoo and see which you like better. Very cleverly, iGoogle has its most popular content in a big blue box at the top of the page with boxes for you to check off. You can pick which city you want to get your weather for, and yes, Sherbrooke is one of them. If you would like to try Yahoo, you can simple Google…or Yahoo My Yahoo and if you click on “I’m New Here”, it will guide you in setting up the page.

One of the advantages of the computer and the Internet is that there are many options for setting things up in the way that it is most convenient and pleasant for you so don’t be shy. Finally, once you’ve done all the work to set up your page the way you want to, go into your browser’s menu (whether it is Explorer, Firefox or the Mac Safari) and set your new page as your home page. The easiest way to do this is to go to the Help menu and search Home Page in the help menu index. It should give you easy step by step instructions on how to make the current page that you’re working on your home page. Good luck and have fun.

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When you’re living in the past, who needs the CBC?

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 4:07 p.m.
Sometimes I want to hide out from bad news and what better place to hide out from bad news than a wormhole or a jail or that place in The Chronicles of Narnia where nothing ever happens – you just use it to jump from one world to another. I like these in-between places where nothing ever happens. That’s the vacation for me!

Television and movies have served that purpose very nicely for me over the last few weeks. This means that when the previews for the news comes on, I stick my fingers in my ears and do my best version of that old favourite, “La-la-la, not listening.” That song is becoming as popular as Happy Birthday to You. And why not? Who wants to hear any news anymore – it’s all bad. My ninety year old Dad has told me not to worry about things that I can’t control. He’s been telling me that since I was sixteen. I’m beginning to suspect why the sum of my parents’ life was having children, going to work every day, and coming home to an evening of watching TV. The real world was too scary.

Nowadays, avoidance of reality is very easy and very legal. For example, if you turn on Canada’s Comedy Channel, you see reruns of Montreal’s Comedy Festival Galas from a decade ago. The comics are all cracking jokes about history instead of current events. I find this very reassuring. Turn on the Déjà Vu Channel and it’s the Seventies and Eighties all over again: All In The Family, Who’s The Boss? Archie Bunker and Meathead and Gloria are fighting the same battles forty years later and they’re all still alive. How good is that?

My own particular favourite is The Space Channel because it’s all about lands and peoples who don’t exist at all. If I think that I’ve got it bad, all I have to do is watch Star Trek - Deep Space Nine as Captain Sisko struggles to deal with The Dominion and the evil Founders, a people made of liquid who can change into any solid shape at will. The Founders created a race of unbeatable soldiers the Jem Hadar and they are beating the pants off the nice Federation of Planets who really just want everybody to get along. Good guys die by the dozens but Sisko struggles on in this fictitious universe that knows the meaning of epic good versus bad battles yet is kind of challenged when it comes to acting…but I don’t care. It’s all pretend.

Meanwhile, like a good citizen of the world, I signed a petition to save jobs at the CBC. In spite of the fact that the CBC now broadcasts Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune everyday (as if nobody else does), this is one of the few broadcasters that even bothers with a local Montreal English language broadcast every evening. CTV seems to be hanging in there but ALL of them bailed when it came to morning new shows. Global, CBC and CTV just figure that there aren’t enough English people in Quebec who care to get news in the morning on TV. CBC is all about what’s going on now and though that’s hard to take, somebody has to be reporting the stuff.

The CBC was set up as a national television and radio network to inform people about local, national and international news. The problem is that when bad times roll around, people wonder if this is worth the cost. Shouldn’t private companies be taking on the job of media? Where do we look for a model – of course, our neighbours to the south, Yes, indeed. Fox News is the pinnacle of fair, objective broadcasting and shows exactly how good an idea it is to leave news reporting to businessmen. (No, I’m not at work, so I can be as sarcastic as I damn well please!)

If you want to spend an entire life hiding out in a mythical wormhole, then the future of the CBC may not mean much to you but for the rest of Canada who needs to know what’s going on, who cares to know what’s going on, dollars must be found for the CBC to continue to be a strong voice in Canadian media.

Meanwhile can Ellen find sanity outside the wormhole? Tune in tomorrow.

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A Plea to Bosses Everywhere – Walk Away From the Dark Side

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 6:33 p.m.
I’m lucky to have sympathetic friends. There is no question that they can offer comfort when I’m feeling confused, stressed and beating myself up with a big psychic baseball bat. Yet they often have the intelligence to say unexpected comments that ring out with pure unadulterated truth.

A friend of mine who had been an administrator in a company and who retired a few years ago said to me, “What makes you think that the people who make decisions are actually qualified to make decisions?” It was the last thing that I expected him to say. I expected him to defend administrators to the bitter end but no, he had experience with people further up the line than him who were continually making bad decisions so he finally retired and walked away.

I am continually amazed by the low quality of decision-making that I see by people who are supposed to be in a position to know better. They will undercut the exact goals that they wish to achieve by going out of their way to make these bad decisions and then to make matters worse, they will go even further out of their way to make the people who work for them feel crappy.

If you have a group of intelligent people who are willing to collaborate to get the best for everybody and the most productive and profitable work environment for everyone involved, doesn’t it make sense to solve problems together rather than using the old school ideas of “We know best and you are idiots. Do what we say and stop whining!” Hundreds of years go by and we still work with outdated confrontational models of solving problems in the work place - the model where the boss has to be the smart, all-knowing monarch and everybody else has to be stupid because they haven’t achieved boss-status. Not only does the boss have the monopoly over the purse strings, he has the monopoly over information and he can use that monopoly to keep his workers “in their place.” And in their place, they must stay.

As one friend says, it doesn’t take long for people to go over to “the dark side” once they are promoted to administrator. They feel that they have achieved this through working harder and being smarter than everybody else. Soon they treat others badly because it is fairly obvious that their underlings just aren’t working as hard as they should be and they aren’t smart enough to realize it.

In many fields, people have to take Human Resources and Administration courses so that they have some theoretical knowledge about how to manage others properly. Yet, all too often, the people who are promoted to management positions have never had this kind of training and soon become bullies who push people around because they can. What they usually don’t see is that the very methods that they are using (and I realize that I’m repeating myself here) are achieving the exact opposite effect of what they had originally intended. Both morale and productivity suffer.

These are hard times for most of us. Our investments are dwindling. Retirement is getting closer and our money is fading away with each monthly RRSP statement. Is it too much to ask our so-called superiors to drop the superior attitude and realize that the bottom line can be affected, perhaps even improved in many ways? People need to be treated with respect and dignity in times like these. They don’t need to feel as if they’ve been raped after a meeting with management because if they do, a whole organization can suffer and I fear that as time goes on, more organizations will. As times get tough, courtesy and common sense are becoming increasingly uncommon.

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Uncertainty, Stress and the Writer’s Block Wall

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 8:14 p.m.
Uncertainty breeds stress and stress breeds a general state of crappiness that is a taxi to a very unhappy place, the writer’s block wall. I haven’t felt moved to write for about ten days because of uncertainty and stress and I am trying to figure out a way to un-strand myself from this wall that I’ve been hanging out beside ever since…ever since…well, ever since I surrendered to uncertainty and stress with a white flag waving in one hand and the other tied behind my back while I was screaming “Uncle,” to uncertainty and stress.

The writer’s block wall is a very ugly place to be stuck at. It’s a wall that is immeasurably tall and wide. It’s made out of stone the size of boulders that have been carved into ugly rectangles. The stones are painted black and in between them is some sort of grout that is a particularly nauseous shade of neon green. It’s dark by the wall except for the occasional spot light that picks you out of the crowd which consists of the rest of the losers hanging out by the wall. When the light goes up on you, you’ll be greeted by raucous canned laughter that comes from everywhere and nowhere. You just want somebody else, anybody else, to be the target of this derisive mirth from an audience of what might just be successful writers who are published every couple of minutes in hundreds of different languages and who receive endless amounts of praise and royalty cheques.

This is no place for the weak but it is the place where all the weaklings wind up. The worst part is knowing what exists behind the wall, ideas - ideas of every size, shape and every colour of the rainbow. They hide behind the wall giggling and whispering. You can hear them very faintly; that’s why you know that they’re there but you just can’t get to them. If only you could climb the wall or find the place where the wall ends, your writer’s block would be gone and your confidence would return.

It’s writing about the wall that helps me. Whichever devils and demons have created the wall – these little pointy headed meanies get very pissed off when I sidestep the depressing effects of the wall by describing the wall itself as well as the sad sacks like me who wind up by the wall. The men always seem to have stubble on their faces and wear bad trench coats and their cigarettes are almost always on the verge of going out. The women are dressed much as I usually dress: men’s red checkered shirts or sweaters with years of pilling and fuzz and of course, the badly fitting jeans bought at some discount store.

If I should dare pick out one man and one woman and write a story about their meeting by the wall and how they fell in love, stopped writing and found their way in life so that they never had to return to the wall, if I tell that story, all the writer’s block demons howl in pain. They try to tell me that’s it’s crap and that everything that I have or will ever write is crap but what can they do? There’s the story and it’s just agonizingly painful to the vindictive writer’s block bastard-demons that I could find a way to circumvent the wall and them and make my way over to the ideas that dwell behind the wall.

Once you have an idea, the wall just fades and the only thing that exists for the hour or the day is the idea. Then it’s farewell uncertainty and farewell stress and shut the hell up, you stupid demons because for just a few minutes, all the distant people who’ve made my life stressful just disappear and so do you.

It’s quiet here right now. No one is demanding my attention. Uncertainty is in the back of my head and it worries me but only as the sound of a fly buzzing on the other side of the house can worry me. It may come closer. It may turn out to be a hornet that can sting me but for now, for a few moments, I can ignore it and choose to deal with the hornet when it comes to sting me. That may be the moment I pick up the swatter and smack it right down.

You demons can look pretty nasty by the wall when the light hits you a certain way but at other times, you look as ridiculous as you try to make me out to be. I may be less than five foot three but I’m bigger than you and for this moment when I’m dealing with you, you look a whole lot more uncertain and stressed than I do. Now say Uncle, you little bugger and say it louder.

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“You Just Might Have To Hardnose The Highway”

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 4:51 p.m.
On the way to the shopping centre today, I put on Van Morrison’s album, Hardnose the Highway on the car stereo. As the chorus came in on Snow in San Anselmo, I was instantly transported back to our living room in Lachine in the 1970’s. You were in it as soon as you opened the door. Five steps later, you’d be in our kitchen with the oil furnace to your left and the stairs going up to the bedroom and bathroom. On cold days, I’d have my coat off and I would practically hug the furnace with my dog, Shy-Ann, at my heels and three other cats meowing for food or an open door to get back out of the house.

Hardnose the Highway brings back my university days when Richard worked at the furniture factory next door and I would take the 191 and 78 buses to McGill, working on my B.A. in Sociology. On warm days, we would drink our coffee on our front steps and feud with the new neighbour across the street who had the audacity to cut down all the beautiful lilac trees that old Mrs. Murray kept by the white picket fence.

Our original neighbour, Mrs. Murray, was the quintessential sweet little old lady who had a romantic and old fashioned garden in her backyard and who fed every cat in the neighbourhood, including ours. We could barely keep them home. Her yard was like a scene from a 1940s movie. Mrs. Murray sold the place and our new neighbour was an extremely obese woman with a very ugly and perpetually barking Chihuahua. Her sons tore down the lilac trees and parked their cars which were the size of great whacking boats on the lawn. Along with her excessive weight, this woman distinguished herself by yelling out in the whiniest of tones “Taber-n-a-a-a-c!” at all times of day or night. It didn’t take long for us to imitate her.

Needless to say, she and her family had done everything possible to make us detest them but we kept our distance. It was a small dead end street and life could be made much worse by fighting with the people who live right across from you. Dogs and cats, however, have very different ideas when it comes to neighbourly relations. The animal kingdom knows nothing about mutual tolerance. The first conflict arose when our street-wise cat, Peg-Leg was hanging out on a summer day…and now the story is put on hold as I give you a description of the inimitable Peg-Leg.

Peg-Leg moved in with Richard as a kitten and it was weeks before I met the two of them. He had one paw in which he couldn’t control his claws. When he walked on carpet, you would hear pad-pad-pad-rip and that rip would be poor Peg-Leg pulling his claws out of the threads of the carpet. He had been in innumerable cat fights so that his face was a mass of scars and his ears were completely chewed up. He was very affectionate with people and I have seen quite a few of my friends taken aback when this massively ugly black cat jumped in his or her lap and began to purr loudly with much mucous resonating in his nose. Repulsion was the most usual reaction. Richard and I adored that cat and though we have had many wonderful cats over the last twenty-five years, Peg-Leg was a standout for his heroic personality.

So back to that summer day in what might be 1975 or ’76. Peg-Leg strayed out into the middle of the street with a kind of lazy I-own-the-street swagger. All of a sudden the neighbour’s Chihuahua zipped out of their yard after Peg-Leg. That’s when our dog Shy-Ann sprang into action. Shy-Ann was a small German Shepherd mix and towered over the little mongrel. She grabbed the Chihuahua by the neck and began to shake him left and right so that the Chihuahua was swinging in the air. She shook him like a dirty wet rag. Peg-Leg escaped unharmed.

The usual “Taber-na-a-ac” rang out from her neighbour with a torrent of curses and threats to call the police. Richard quickly broke up the dog fight but our gargantuan neighbour continued to abuse him. Well! We gave back as good as she did and we threatened to call the police because her dog attacked our cat. Anybody who was around was out on the street watching the show. It was like being back in New York City!!

Finally, both sides retreated to their respective porches with their respective pets none the worse for wear. The stony silence remained and within another year, we packed up and went off to Europe and one of our friends bought the house that we rented and the adjoining one too, turning it into a sprawling home.

It takes only a few lines of Van Morrison’s Snow in San Anselmo to make me think of those days when we were in our twenties and our life seemed to be stretching out before us. Some people say that scent revives memory. Agatha Christie used that device in her mysteries all the time but for me, it’s music. Play a certain album and the movie replays in my mind. It’s a blessing and unfortunately, it’s a curse too.

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Facebook Nation Says Give Us Back Our Stuff!

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 8:32 a.m.
Boys and Girls: We've just discovered that Facebook Nation is the sixth largest country in the world, 175 million strong. Yes, there are 175 million of us who have nothing better to do than upload gossip, photos, and play with ridiculously silly applications that give mysterious companies around the world all the personal data that we put up on Facebook. Think of it - 175 million people with nothing better to do. No wonder we are in a serious recession; we’re all playing on freaking Facebook!

Yet along comes the news that Facebook has changed something that we pay no attention to (my media source said “quietly changed” which makes Facebook sound ve-e-ry sneaky) Facebook changed its user policy so that we don’t have exclusive rights to the text, photos and other miscellanea that we put on Facebook. Kaboom! Big to-do! The response was apparently furious enough to make Facebook have a re-think and to inspire the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to prepare a federal complaint against Facebook:

“It appears that the major thrust of EPIC's--and many others' anger--at Facebook stems from new language in the privacy policy that grants the company seemingly perpetual control over content users post there:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings....” (Webware, http://news.cnet.com/8301-17939_109-10166290-2.html?tag=mncol;txt February 17, 2009)

Here I am, blissfully blogging away as the attention-seeking little writer that I am, completely ignorant of the fact that Facebook could have all legal rights to what I write simply because I upload my Somebody’s Mother rants on Facebook. That is just not kosher!

A few years back, Billy Bragg (British folksinger, author and political activist) launched a similar onslaught against MySpace. Young musicians often put their work on MySpace so that people can see and listen to them. It’s a great way for Indie Rock to spread the word about new artists. The problem was, of course, that with such a policy, young composers would lose the rights to their music. Who in their right mind would put their music on MySpace knowing that?

MySpace retracted this policy and I haven’t heard much about it since. Facebook has done much the same thing. Apparently tens of thousands of Facebook users went on the Facebook blog and protested the changes in the terms of service, urging Facebook to go back to its old policy. Most of you Facebook-ers must have seen the notice the other day at the top of the screen that Facebook has done just that, gone back to its old policy but the post did say that they will be examining the Terms of Service and that changes will be coming up again.

I think that this is a big wake-up call to all of us about being careful on the Internet. Personally, I believe in the strength and anonymity of numbers. Why the hell Facebook needs my texts and photos is beyond me. Yet for others, I could see big problems. If Facebook sites can be used as legal evidence in a criminal case, you have no recourse. They own it, the government asks for it and Facebook will happily hand it over, pure and simple.

If someday, I want to write a book of all my Somebody’s Mother columns and blogs, is Facebook going to get the profits? Maybe it isn’t me who will from suffer this ambiguity about ownership. Maybe it will be a far more talented writer than me.

The Internet has been around for awhile but it’s apparent that it’s still frontier territory when it comes to who owns what. We’ve all been leery of having the Internet legislated into a bland approximation of what television is. So meanwhile, it’s back to the old “Buyer, Beware.”

Facebook is free for now but if there’s a way to make more money off our backs, you can be sure that Facebook will be on it like bears on honey. It’s up to us to keep from getting stung.

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You sure that web cam is off?

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 6:32 p.m.

Another week has gone by and as I write this, there is a web cam staring at me. I can only assume that it springs to life when I tell it to...as in when I fire up my newly downloaded Skype to talk with a friend or relative down the road in Montreal or across the Atlantic, in England or Italy. It's pretty nifty but I get the impression that it might all be a plot and the little gadget is secretly broadcasting me typing away with furrowed brow and tongue in cheek. It’s not a pretty picture and that will only get uglier if I decide some summer evening to type up my musings in my underwear. No, no, I’ll have to unplug the thing just to be on the safe side.

Any of my ex-sociology students will vaguely remember me teaching them the term, “Future Shock” that Alvin Toffler coined years ago. Now it’s the Baby Boomers who have become the techno-idiots and feel so very futuristic as we make video calls on Skype and feel like it’s straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oh, man, I was supposed to be living on a moon colony by now. What the hell happened to the future? It’s so mundane.

One of my biggest shocks is this lack of privacy that we’re getting so very cavalier about. I’ve had discussions with teachers in both the public and private systems who are very gung-ho towards the computer software that allow a teacher to go into any kid’s computer and see whether he or she is on task or bouncing around the netherworlds of the Internet. What’s more interesting: typing up that English poem or exploring the cyber-underbelly of humanity? Maybe I’m overdramatizing, more likely little Suzie is getting the latest gossip about who’s going out with that GUY. Shouldn’t the teacher be able to zoom into Suzie’s computer with a warning, GET OFF MSN AND GET BACK TO WORK!!

After all, Suzie should be prepared for the computerized workplace where there is no privacy and the administration could swoop down on her at the first sign of inattention. Suzie should be prepared for street corners where TV cameras check for crime, terrorists and anyone who might jaywalk or drop a gum wrapper. In the interests of civil order, Suzie should be prepared to give up a modicum of civil liberties for everyone’s safety.

I don’t know about you but if Suzie was my daughter, this would not be the kind of education that I would want her to have nor is it the kind of world that I want her to inherit. Suzie should have a strong sense of her own personal space and the right to her own world and that includes her computer. If Suzie doesn’t get her poem done, then she should suffer any and all of the consequences that not doing her work brings. Flunk her, keep her in after school…better yet, watch the kids’ faces as they work; you can usually tell who’s working and who’s not. The smiles give it away.

What I don’t want is a paranoid 1984 world that seems to be coming up on us, thick and fast. If Facebook says that they can ensure my privacy to a reasonable degree through their security systems and options for setting up Friends then I want them to do that. By the same token, it’s my responsibility and Suzie’s responsibility to be aware that the Internet is public space and that stupid pictures and stupid comments have a way of finding themselves in the hands of the people that we least want to have them.

As I write, I’m very careful about what I say. If I want total freedom to write, I can write on my own computer or in the security of my writing group who understand very well that the narrator isn’t always me; often it’s a fictional personality.

If we want our civil liberties, we have to use them responsibly but more importantly, we have to defend them. If we forfeit these liberties in our schools, I think that it’s a hop, skip and a jump to adapting to a lack of privacy that will make us more likely to give up these rights in later life. It really isn’t worth it and it worries me that others don’t see it. We’ve come a long way in how we cherish civil liberties. It’s a shame to think that as technology grows more sophisticated, it threatens these liberties that people have fought to preserve.

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25 things or how Facebook brings out my wishy washy tendencies

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 11:28 a.m.
Rose tagged me and those tagged must follow these instructions: post 25 things about you, then tag 25 more people. Yes, you too can make a nuisance of yourself to 25 people so get tagging. Here’s all the stuff you never need to know about me.

1. I never knew do chain letters. My husband is disgusted with me.

2. Cranberry is my favourite colour; it’s a step up from pink…but I love wearing black.

3. Growing up, I always wanted to have dogs and cats but Stuyvesant Town (a development in Manhattan) wouldn’t let us. Now I have too many dogs and cats.

4. Good coffee, good wine and good beer are essential to my well-being. I refuse to joke about these things.

5. I love my husband and children so much that it makes me look stupid.

6. I worry.

7. I talk a lot in a New York accent tempered with many years in Canada and my hair is not as curly as it was once. People define me by these things. I’m used to it.

8. If I could, I would travel much more than I do and if I could, I would choose Baldwin’s Mills to be my home base. But if I were filthy stinking rich, I would have condos in Montreal, NYC and Venice.

9. I miss playing guitar and singing. I almost got good at both.

10. I love watching my plays performed. I love seeing my writing in print. I love these things almost as much as I love my family.

11. I still can’t understand why people treat each other so badly and why the world’s resources can’t be shared more equitably. I seriously don’t get it.

12. I never should have read 1984; rodents scare the hell out of me.

13. Star Trek is an escape, books are an escape. I really like going somewhere else cheaply. Picard was the best captain and I don’t care what anyone says.

14. I have a love/hate relationship with New York City. I wish I had a British accent.

15. I have a love hate relationship with t.v; it makes me happy but keeps me from writing.

16. I love my friends - they put up with me.

17. I have no fashion sense whatsoever and I hate make-over shows. Kill the fashion fascists!

18. Certain people have been ejected from my universe and they don’t know who they are.

19. I believe all commercials. Commercials have happy endings. Why isn’t life like commercials?

20. I hate the cold. I wanted to marry a Floridian. I didn’t. Now I wear snow pants for 5 minute drives to work.

21. I love taking pictures and looking at photos. I would love to take serious photography and printing courses.

22. Sometimes I listen to music that my husband and children don’t like…I live with

23. I love my little library and I love teaching sociology to teenagers. This continually surprises me.

24. I’m not as funny as I’d like to be - I wish this list was funnier.

25. An employer or work colleague may see this list so I can’t say what should have been 24 and 25. Oh yeah, also, I’m inconsistent. Please see point #1.

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Thursday's Child is Sunday's Clown

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 9:02 a.m.
Nico lives
There are actually goldfinches at my feeder this morning, very exciting. No, it’s not the same as walking around Times Square in a crowd of tourists shepherding 12 excited kids to Broadway shows. Still, as I contemplate a mountain of snow and four days off work ahead of me, I’m glad of the break, even mildly excited for a break. I loved the atmosphere yesterday. Everybody was walking around with a slightly wider grin and a bit of spring in their steps because at 12:30, the buses would be leaving and freedom was beckoning.

It’s confession time on the ranch and I’m going to share a rather silly secret with you: years ago, I stopped going to see Broadway shows because they made me feel like such a failure. I wasn’t one of the brightest lights at the High School of Performing Arts and seeing shows simply reminded me that I wasn’t in the shows. Sour grapes are very bad for the soul.

Luckily, this trip was redemptive and a liberation from all that nonsense. I love writing plays, I love participating in school and community theatre and I just love theatre in general. If anything this trip renewed my passion for theatre. How can you not be excited and re-energized by theatre where skill, imagination, and budget seem limitless?

This might be the part of the silly confession where I swoon about the sets, the lighting, the technical wizardry, voices, dance and acting. Trust me - they were ‘way beyond what I remember from the Broadway shows that I saw as a teenager. I was mesmerized for two hours. Now I understand why Vaudeville and Burlesque were so important in the Thirties. During my time in the theatre, I almost forgot who I was. All my problems were gone. Watching Equus, I was drawn into Dysart’s struggle to make his way through the complexity of Alan Strang’s personality and Dysart’s own personality. The horses’ movements were literally chilling. Billy Elliott flattened me to my seat. The music and dance, the lyrics, the sets flying out of the ground were just breathtaking.

When both shows were over, I wanted them to start all over again. I wanted to catch things that I might have missed. (Believe me, if orchestra seats weren’t over $120.00 a pop, I’d be back in a flash to do just that.) This is really what theatre should be about; it’s an opportunity to be in the same space with living people who re-enact a play, almost a religious ritual that gives the audience a transcendent experience.

I’m so glad that I have a break now to rest up from all yesterday’s parties because that’s what the trip was to me. Two plays that reminded me what big theatre is all about, seeing my family (my dad looked great), and walking by the building that used to be the High School of Performing Arts. They seem to be renovating the outside now but they can’t get rid of the ghosts.

Those ghosts haunt me less now. I have a less silly confession, kind of a happy one. Things went better than they should have. I found other stages to play on and though they weren’t on Broadway, they suited me better and they gave me joy. This is when I knock on wood (I just did) and move on to find those other stages that I can take up space on so that I don’t “cry behind the door.” I have to keep reminding myself in the next weeks and months that closed doors usually open windows and when you scrape through those windows, there’s the hope of finding yourself in an even better place.

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Somebody's Mother on Obama Watch

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 12:59 p.m.
I went a little crazy with Obama Watch this week. President signs an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay in a year. I cheer. News reports that a released prisoner is now second in command for Al Qaida in Yemen. I say it figures that something like that would be reported immediately. Perhaps this is a Fox News plot but no, Al Jeezera confirms the report. Ellen shrugs – human rights first and all that. She fishes around seriously for excuses.

Day Two – President signs an executive order reversing Bush’s order that bans funding to any international group providing abortions or information on obtaining an abortion. I cheer again. Stem cell research? Yup, Obama is on that too. Bombing in Pakistan? Oy vey.

It’s been a long time since an American president has done things that have made me cheer. I’m frightened. Maybe I’m going soft. I’m making excuses to my skeptical husband for anything that the President does that seems out of my realm of good and evil. This is definitely worrisome – it’s two steps from there to my homeland, right or wrong. I have to get a grip on reality again.

Take Obama’s appointment of Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Here’s a man whose answer to problems in a school is to fire the principal, all the teachers and close the school. He’s a good buddy of the president’s; they’ve enjoyed quite a few games of pick-up basketball. Considering the social problems in the United States, it seems a bit iffy to use teacher-firing as a means for improving education when you have issues of poverty and family break-down in the United States that make it increasingly difficult for children to receive a decent education in the public system. Now add on the fact that classrooms are overcrowded and the fact that many take place in buildings that need serious renovation and you have a problem whose many facets are far beyond an individual teacher’s ability to solve. The Goldfinch jury is definitely out on this pick.

If Obama is seriously interested in educational reform (are you listening Stephen Harper?), here’s my recipe. Bring down class sizes and you’ll see a big change. This takes more than finding a few twenty-one year old college graduates, giving them a summer course and plopping them in some urban district in the hopes that they can teach kids with severe social and learning problems a thing or two before these grads with big ideals move on to their real careers. Teach For America is a program that seems to be designed to discourage people to be teachers. More teachers, more experienced teachers are needed in problem schools and some kind of financial bonus should make it worth their while to get into such schools and give it a try. You pay people what a job is really worth and there will be enough people to choose from to get the job done. It’s been a long time since teachers have been truly valued for their years of education and the stress factor in the jobs that they do and the complexity of what they try to achieve that often cannot be measured with test scores.

In the weeks to come and the year to come, I’m hoping to see the mess that Bush AND Clinton left us show a semblance of clean-up. Let’s not forget that the de-regulation of the banks started with the Clinton administration. Just as we’ve seen salmonella scares in the food industry for lack of food inspectors, the near-collapse of the credit system is a result of trusting the big guys too much to keep the wheels turning. It’s just crazy – as long as their wheels are greased, what the heck do they care about the rest of us? All eyes are on the President to figure this out. I wish him a lot of luck; he’ll need it. After all, it’s nice to have something to cheer about for a change. I hope he can keep it coming.

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Greasy Roads, Summer Tires and Life Spins Out of Control

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 10:26 p.m.
Last week was a tough one: the six month anniversary of my mother’s death and the death of a colleague after a four month battle with ovarian cancer. I went to her funeral on Friday and felt such a strong sense of disbelief. Four months ago, she said to me, “I feel perfectly fine and I know that they’re going to make me sick.” She looked perfectly fine but as the months went by, the news got repeatedly worse and we were finally warned that the end was near.

I went into Montreal after the funeral and went out to supper with my closest friends and some members of my family. I ate a good and very large Indian supper, washed down with a pint of Newcastle Brown, my favourite beer. The dinner conversation was lively and it was a good evening. For the rest of the weekend, I cleaned house, baked and ate some delicious oatmeal raisin cookies, sat by the fire a lot and drank big cups of coffee and a few glasses of wine with supper - a quiet but comfortable weekend only broken up by the routine of the weekly house cleaning and food shopping. I had no major complaints.

Life is tremendously precious to me although I have not trekked down the route of fame and fortune that I originally thought that I was on. The bliss of middle age is looking back on a life with few regrets. This is always incomprehensible to young people - and there is a bad Cat Stevens song that you can use as background music for that thought - but please don’t. Things could have really gone a lot worse for me but I was fortunate to find help on the way and a few people set me straight.

My father used to say to me on many occasions that there are two kinds of problems: those that are out of our control and those that are man-made. My mother was afraid of dying and yet she faced her terminal illness with courage. Yes, she used denial much of the time to handle the fact that she was going to die but it worked for her. Who am I to knock a life-long tool that has stood me in good stead? Procrastination is just another form of denial and it works just as much as it gets me into trouble. Mom complained rarely and cracked lots of jokes till she couldn’t talk anymore.

Some of my close friends are going through a similar process, getting through the first year of an elderly parent’s death. You find that some problems have sadly ended while the newer and more mundane ones of dealing with what parents have left behind seems to go on and on. It is a source of constant worry for me at this point. At least two members of my family have severed their relationship with me and I with them; it’s too painful.

These are the man-made problems that Dad talked about. Something can be done about them. Grieving for a lost loved one and death are out of our hands. It’s a test of our characters that we can’t avoid and that we need a sack-full of aphorisms to get through. I carry that invisible bag across my shoulder, like Santa, like the laundry bag that my father used to haul to the car on the way to his laundry business.

You take it one day at a time or it takes a year to get over the death of a loved one or as Janis Joplin said, get it while you can. For me, getting it has become that glass of Chateau Lafitte Laujac 2004 or that pint of Newcastle or that smile across the breakfast table from the one I love.

Here’s another one. The late, great Frank Zappa got up in concert and said that the show was going to be about the fact that it’s fucking great to be alive “…and if there’s anybody here who doesn’t think that it’s fucking great to be alive, then I wish that you’d just leave now because this show will just bum you out.”

Wish you were here, Frank. It’s 2009, an African America is about to be president (the jury’s out on what he’ll do with it though), the world is sinking into some kind of Depression/Recession and in spite of it all, it’s still extremely fucking great to be alive.

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Pedaling on the infernal guilt machine

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 12:38 p.m.

Exercise and music-these are my two New Year's resolutions. I'm not doing enough of either. For the sake of my mental health, I realized that I'd better get back into a habit of listening to music and playing music because we are entering the dark night of the soul, January, and if I don't doodle around on a guitar or turn my stereo up loud (my dog Molly will just have to go down to the basement of out on the back porch to wail at wind/string instruments), then I may go stark raving mad this winter.

Music is definitely the easy resolution. It makes me happy. Exercise does not make me happy and lack of exercise goes on to do something even worse to me - it churns up guilt. I have enough to feel guilty about. I don't send my children care packages. I don't do enough for my old dad in NY. A sibling and her brood think that I am one of the evildoers and I have students who hate me for assigning work to them and expecting them to do it. I feel guilty about my deeds that have had an impact on these people whether or not the guilt is warranted.

What the heck do I need another thing to feel guilty about? Ah, but you see, I did this to myself. Two years ago, I bought myself an elliptical trainer and I figured that since it cost me dearly, I would use it. I know that I can be a rather cheap little woman and wouldn't it be the height of waste buying an exercise machine and not using it? Most of you who chose to read this little tirade are probably shaking your heads with a knowing smile on your faces. Stop being so damn smug. You were right. You are still right.

I don’t use the machine and I’ve taken to calling it the guilt machine. It works so much better at exercising my guilt reflexes than it does at toning up my calf and thigh muscles and burning calories. Twenty-five minutes on that machine is so boring that it makes me want to scream for mercy. An iPod is no help - I’m bored to tears even with music. My latest idea is to stick a TV in front of it but you see that involves an outlay of more cash for a TV/DVD player and if I don’t use the machine and watch the TV, I will feel even guiltier about wasting money.

There is a solution: forget the exercise resolution and go forth to a newer, different me, a me who has resolved to banish guilt from her life. That is a resolution that is doomed to failure as I am guilt-ridden due to genetics, upbringing, cultural heritage and the present world situation. Anyone who lives as well as I do should feel guilty, right?

For twenty-five years, I’ve resolved to be more patient in the New Year and that never worked. Now I don’t need more patience; my kids have left home and I’ve got enough patience for what I do in life. Why be greedy? Why look for more? Maybe exercise should have a similar place in my life. I don’t need to run marathons and I’m not excessively overweight…no, I’m afraid it doesn’t work. When I get to old age and my legs fail from under me, I will be infuriated with myself for not getting enough exercise when I was young enough to do something about it. Then, I’ll feel guilty and it will be the same crap yet again: more guilt, more misery.

No, I will play music, I will listen to music and I will try to find some form of exercise that doesn’t bore me to tears…and when January gets too much for me, I’m going to drink a glass of very nice red wine in front of the fire. The Christmas lights outside may stay up till February too. Lights and wine and fire - that will be enough to stave off guilt for a few days anyway.

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