What’s food?

News organizations were just reporting this week that “Americans now spend more money dining out than on groceries” and are happy about it.

Me, I find it very sad. Where will children growing up in these homes learn how to cook? Learn to appreciate fresh ingredients? Learn how to tell a ripe avocado from a goner? How to enjoy making meals for loved ones to savour?

I’m a bit weird, to put it mildly, in that I almost never eat out, except when I travel – and even then, as much as possible I shop at grocery stores and buy veggies, fruit, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and generally live on that plus the occasional sandwich. I find it much healthier, wayyyy cheaper, and more – call me nuts if you like, but I find it more self-reliant. I very much dislike what being served does to bipeds. It makes them soft, overly indulgent, if not borderline indolent in some cases. But mostly it’s not real. Not that people who enjoy that sort of thing shouldn’t treat themselves to a fine restaurant meal every now and then. But eating out more often than not is so artificial as to become just plain wrong.

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So now the flour is dangerous?

I’ve seen a few stories about this. Apparently now even the flour can be contaminated with e.coli and who knows what-all. People seem to be blaming animals, doing their thing in the fields, for the problem.

I am not a scientist and I also have not reviewed the evidence. I’ll just ask a simple question: Haven’t animals (you know, cows, etc.) been using the fields as toilets forever? I mean, not necessarily the very same fields where the grain was growing, but a neighbouring one? And in the past, did people routinely get e.coli from the flour? I mean, how many cases did you hear about this until very recently?

Exactly. Could it be that there’s something in the animals’ poop that shouldn’t be there, and that feeding cows things other than natural non-enhanced grass can only lead to trouble?

Nah. The “scientists” will probably start saying we should bleach or irradiate the grain instead. Yeah, because what could go wrong with that.

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Picking up math tricks in a stalled Tube train from an Alabama teacher

Life is full of funny surprises. Last weekend we found ourselves in a stalled Tube train in London, on our way to the Tower, and we got into conversations with our fellow stuck Tubers, including these two nice young women from Alabama – one who now lives in England and her friend who was visiting her. The visiting friend is a math teacher back home and sure enough the kids started yammering at her about how much they enjoy math (their father’s DNA, don’t look at me) and what have you. And out of the blue she shared with us a trick she has to help her students remember their multiplication table for the 9s. Not that kids do multiplication tables much anymore, but this young lady was charmingly old-fashioned about it.

Anyhow, here’s what she taught us. Feel free to use it with your kids. And send a nice thought towards Birmingham.

 

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Plunging into the arts

Our homeschooling voyage so far is excellent and very rewarding. We mostly follow (fairly loosely), the classical education curriculum outlined in The Well-Trained Mind (which I recommend heartily).

There is however a bit of a gap in our affairs, and it’s where it comes to music and fine arts. I have a few books plus music galore, and I certainly know what I like, but this does not a curriculum make. So I’d been vaguely looking for something structured and systematic to teach my girls arts and music. They are currently 9, 7, and 6 years old but are in grades 6, 4 and 2 respectively (oh yeah, homeschooling works, did I ever mention that?).

For most subject matters except world history, which we all do together, I don’t mind splitting up grades and working with each kid separately. But I was very much afraid of adding too much material for three different grades because realistically I don’t have time for that. So! My solution was to find a curriculum that looked good and start at the beginning with everyone, even if that meant a bit of a slower pace at first for the older two. They’ll enjoy the break.

Some solid googling led me to this lady, who based her arts and music curriculum on the Well-Trained Mind model with a dash of Charlotte Mason philosophy. That sounds about right for us so I just purchased the ebook for grades 1-4. We shall start in earnest next week and focus on that for the next few weeks as we take a minor break from math/English/social studies.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Happy Alfred and the Cakes Day!

Alfred the Great

It may be because I grew up in Quebec, who knows, but I never really felt a huge emotional attachment to the idea of Canada. It’s a great place to live (if you can discount the mosquitoes), and it is full of wonderful people. But as an idea, the Canada they taught me in school was insipid at best.

Sure, go ahead, blame the schools. I certainly do. Because what I learned there was nothing to inspire devotion, loyalty or pride. And what I got outside school was sort of indifferent, too. And I didn’t even grow up surrounded by separatists. C’est tout dire.

Mind you, I never felt a strong emotional attachment to Quebec either. The modern idea, that before 1960 and René Lévesque showed up it was nothing but cloistered nuns and big black poor miserable darkness (I exaggerate, but only a wee bit), and that thanks to the glorious separatists we finally had something to strive for, left me somewhat cold. I spent the first 30 years of my life in Quebec and I can tell you it’s quite beautiful and also has lots of wonderful people in it, but otherwise it’s not particularly inspiring to me.

I was always more inspired by the idea of the United States. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. I can get behind that. I can strive to achieve it. I can use it as an inspiration in my own life. I always felt very much at home in the US. You don’t have to explain many things to me there (except for corn pones; I really don’t get corn pones).

I also like the fact that Americans, as a rule, do take their history seriously. More than we do, at any rate. In my younger days I spent a lot of time going to libertarian conferences all over the United States and I remember being struck by the number of times we had to read and discuss Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I remember commenting at some point that nobody in the French-speaking world is as serious about this particular Frenchman’s opinions about the US as Americans are.

Do Canadians know and care about their pre-Trudeau/Lévesque history? Some people do, of course. But as far as I can tell, no, not really. It’s not a thing, around here. And that’s most unfortunate. Because if we did, we’d find something really cool and awesome that would make us feel a lot more inspired by the idea of Canada. That kickass history goes way back in time to Saxon kings, to Alfred and the Cakes, and to regular folks risking everything to get and keep liberty under law. We are descended from those heroes, and their story is ours. We, too, can live like Alfred, and we should.

John’s podcast this week includes a great segment about that, and I encourage you to listen, here. We are otherwise engaged in bringing this history to life, in the most interesting way possible, to give Canadians their history back, and help people like me feel more emotionally attached to their country.

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Normal by death (a novel) – chapter twenty-one

[previous chapter] [start from the beginning

Rose Lieberman was in her shower, thinking about Claire and me and her mother. Yeesh, what an awful combination. Hey! Can I change this line? I really don’t like being in the shower with all these women…

Anyway. There was Rose, with nobody in particular, thinking about something about what her mother had said, that sometimes a healthy habit was the best cover for an unhealthy one. She’d read that line in a novel somewhere, couldn’t remember where, but for some reason it had stayed with her.

“Sometimes a good habit is the best cover for an unhealthy one,” Ruth had said, when Rose insisted she couldn’t find anything in my daily routine that made her suspicious, after she’d followed me reasonably closely for a week. Not that I’d noticed, mind you. She was a good cop, despite her obnoxiousness.

Yeah, OK. Maybe because of it, too.

“Yes, Mom, but this guy is not doing anything unhealthy, as far as I can tell. There is nothing to hide; he goes to work in various nursing homes around Chomedey, and when he’s not at work he’s at home or with his girlfriend, and only occasionally with Abdul. He doesn’t shop outside of basic necessities like groceries and gas for his car, doesn’t go out, all he seems to do is play video games and work. He doesn’t drive a flashy car, doesn’t appear to do any drugs, only drinks beer like a normal guy. Other than his recent trip south and the fact that he seems to think cooking mostly consists of using his phone app to get pizza delivered, I can’t see any evidence of reckless spending or behaviour.”

Damn! She had me pegged, sure did.

“Yes,” her mother had to concede, “maybe this is one guy who’s clean. Except for the part where he hangs out with one of your suspects and his girlfriend does, too.”

As she lathered up her hair, Rosie turned this sentence in her head over and over again. Indeed, why would someone so clean hang out so much with someone so not clean? And his girlfriend, too? It seemed like something was up with that. But then again, she’d been asked to investigate Abdul and his break-and-enter operations, not Claire and I. And besides, as far as she could see we showed precisely zero evidence of being involved with these kinds of petty crimes that she was originally asked to investigate. “Yeah, Lieberman,” she told herself, “remember the job they big boys who work on busting organized gangs with the SQ asked you to help with? How many time zones away from that job are you now? Way to make an impression…”

She was torn between hating herself and getting even more stubborn about following her gut. She knew she would not rest until she’d had Claire and I figured out. Maybe we were people Abdul was grooming for some more senior, administrative-type, jobs with the gangs?

Oh, little cop, you’re getting warm, and not just because of where you are…

****

It wasn’t until she saw me pay another visit to Abdul two days later, to get paid for my latest mercy mission, that Rose really started to feel like she was onto something.

“But Rose,” Ray Bouthilier said, looking at her over his reading glasses as he pored over some timesheets, “I’m not sure I see the connection with what the gangs people wanted you to help uncover. How is this guy, this Jean, connected in any way to gang stuff? You’ve followed him around for a couple of weeks, and as far as you can tell all he ever does is go to work armed with nothing more dangerous than a clipboard in various nursing homes in Chomedey, hangs out with his part-time hooker girlfriend and pays a few visits here and there to your main suspect. Maybe he just likes the rough trade, who knows? That doesn’t make him a suspect…”

Rose was prepared for this reaction. “I know. This isn’t what the gangs unit was looking for. I followed the prime suspect for a while before he bumped into me and I was able to put together a file detailing as much of his activities as I was able to piece together. He does run a small network of drug dealers and kids stealing stuff for him, and he does seem to have some kind of arrangement with the gangs where he helps spot good prospects for them while not getting too big for his britches, and I’ve detailed all that in the report I already gave you. I’m not a gangs expert, but I’ve looked pretty carefully into Abdul’s affairs and I honestly don’t think he is that involved with them. Or if he is, he’s really sophisticated about it because I can’t see anything more than what’s in the report. But my antenna is tingling like crazy about his relationship with Jean, and I’d like another two weeks to investigate it please.” She saw him jump in his chair and rushed to add, “I promise I won’t ask for more than two weeks if there’s nothing more, and if there isn’t anything there and I’m wasting my time, I’ll work weekends extra for free to make it up to you.”

Well, now. Bouthilier didn’t like the sound of letting her chase me around for another two weeks, which was a feeling I entirely shared with the good capitaine. But at the same time he was reluctant to tell her not to listen to her instinct.

“What about the prints of Abdul you thought you had on your phone?” he asked, more as a way to give himself time to think than to seek information.

“It’s in the report. Basically yeah, he’s the guy the gangs unit was curious about. He’s the one spotting and training prospects, and dealing drugs. I’ve sent his prints around but he doesn’t seem to have any kind of record outside of this area. Our Abdul isn’t much of a world traveller.”

“Hum, OK.” He chewed on his pencil for a minute. So far this kid had proved herself a very hard worker and a smart investigator, and he knew she had a lot of potential. It was a fine balance, managing her. He didn’t want her to get burned on a story that wouldn’t amount to anything, but he also didn’t want to dampen her spirit too much. And since she was offering to make it up if it turned out her instinct was wrong on that one…

“OK, Lieberman,” he said, sealing my fate. “Two weeks.”

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The lack of shirt on this adorable baby is the least of my concerns

So apparently this story is making the rounds. Dad forgot to put a shirt on his daughter and sent her to daycare in shirtless overalls and now everyone’s LOLing about it.

Cute, right?

Wrong. Well, OK. The baby is thoroughly adorable. But pray tell me, what the heck is a seven-month-old doing in daycare? Don’t give me the excuse that people have to work. I get it. I’ve been working more or less full time since I was 15, and I did not take mat leave when I popped offspring. I was actually working from my hospital bed (I hate hospitals; working distracted me from the fact that they wouldn’t let me go home for 24 hours after delivery). The morning after my third one was born (she was born around dinner time), my husband brought the other two to my hospital room so he could go to a meeting. The nurses looked at him funny but I didn’t; it made perfect sense, except for the part about me being confined to the hospital. They really ought to have let me go. I really don’t do hospitals well.

Anyway, the point is, I understand the part about needing or wanting to work even when you have babies. But you know what? It is absolutely possible to manage it so your babies don’t wind up parked in daycare. Mine never saw the inside of a daycare. Not once. We tried nannies for a few months and didn’t like it one bit. There is nothing better for a small child than being with Mom or Dad or, failing that, Grandma or someone close to the family who loves the baby like his or her own.

Not daycare. I’m sure there are excellent folks who work in daycares. I’m not criticizing them. My problem with daycare isn’t the staff, it’s the fact that babies and little kids spend the bulk of their time in an extremely artificial setting, surrounded by strangers. It’s not OK.

By comparison, not realizing that overalls need shirts underneath is very small potatoes indeed.

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Who are cemeteries for? 

Holy cow is this ever wrong:

Drive through most major Canadian cities and you’re likely to happen upon the same colossal waste of space on what would otherwise be prime real estate. No, I’m not talking about government buildings or vegan restaurants; I’m referring to cemeteries — especially the ones in urban areas, which take up space that could be used by the living, but instead cater to the dead.

I object. Cemeteries are not for the dead. They are for the living. I personally don’t want to be buried and I am not religious. Yet I would not get rid of urban cemeteries because 1) they remind us that we aren’t the first charlies to walk the earth and certainly won’t be the last, and that we, too, will eventually turn to dust and be dismissed so why not use our time here properly; and 2) they provide us with green and unbuilt spaces that are a fantastic break from the concrete jungle around. I don’t know who came up with the idea that progress required pavement and plastic buildings, but they were profoundly wrong.

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Traveling and not training

It’s difficult to maintain good habits while traveling. Especially when you’re traveling with us. We’re not exactly easy-going. Up at five, working all day, in bed around midnight – rinse and repeat during 13 days. Eating roadside food because we don’t have time to sit down for meals. I did try very hard to buy fruits and veggies and good cheeses and such, but it’s not always available (or appealing) when you’re far from significant population centres. I joked at some point that I was surviving on pork pies and tea. It worked fairly well, all things considered.

Then there’s the whole “either you’re walking around carrying 35 lbs of equipment for 10 hours or else you’re sitting in the car for 12 hours” work schedule, bookended by two long flights. That’s tough on the joints.

All this to say I was both very keenly looking forward to and at the same time dreading going back to the dojo. I went and did a karate class at noon, then did another hour of training at 3. It felt awesome and also painful. My poor hips couldn’t cope with all the kicking. And now of course I walk around with very stiff legs. But it feels good to be back.

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Normal by death (a novel) – chapter twenty

[previous chapter] [start from the beginning]

“Hello, Simon, nice to see you again,” said the nurse manning the main station on the ground floor. “What’s it going to be this time?”

I gave her my most friendly smile. “Oh, you know, the usual. A lot of paperwork, a little bit of good, and I’ll be out of your hair in no time.”

“Well, it’s too bad you can’t stay longer. We miss your smile when you’re gone.” Dear me. She’s enjoying this. Alright then, she gets another smile, and a barely-there wink for good measure.

Yes, playing the kind of guy nobody notices would have helped me a lot not get caught. But to be honest, I did like the attention. So I got cocky. It was fun while lasted, to be sure.

You know what’s really weird in all this? I became more popular with the lady nurses after I got HIV positive. Although, come to think of it, it may be that I became more attractive the minute I committed to Claire. Women are such devious creatures. They always go harder after the men who are taken. And for what?

At any rate, it would have been better for my future prospects if I’d managed to be bland and forgettable. But no. Everywhere I went nurses reacted like this.

I chose the name Simon Taillon to go with the completely made-up identity that had cost Abdul a fair chunk of change to create. Simon was 39 years old, and worked for an outfit called Nursing Data that was under (completely fake) contract with the ministry of health to help monitor residents in long-term care homes and facilities and keep track of various health indicators, especially those related to oral and dental hygiene.

It was a great cover. I’d spent a few months establishing my routine with the nursing homes and now they were all used to it. “It’s a new and innovative project,” I’d explained to an already administratively overwhelmed coordinator once, “it’s a longitudinal study done in partnership with the Université de Montréal on the effects of a diet especially formulated for an aging clientele on their teeth. The university researchers,” I nodded approvingly as I said this, “are interested in finding ways to improve dental health in older people and we are interested in finding out whether the diets we are recommending the nursing homes follow are as sound as we hope, dental-hygiene-wise.”

They bought it right away. It’s amazing how much you can get away with when you speak like a government press release. As far as the administrator was concerned, it made perfect sense to hear that somebody somewhere in the number-crunching department had noticed that nursing home residents had a lot of mouth problems, especially teeth falling out of people’s mouths for no apparent reason. She’d noticed the same thing herself. It didn’t help that many of those residents couldn’t remember losing the teeth in question, since they couldn’t remember much of anything anyway. Trying to figure out whether a better diet might save the nursing homes dental drama was a splendid idea indeed, and every administrator reacted like this one. They all gleefully opened their doors to me. I mean, to Simon.

Abdul had even created a fictitious company and given it a fictitious government contract to collect random samples from nursing homes, in the form of used toothbrushes. My routine consisted of coming around, taking a few toothbrushes from selected residents, wrapping them in ziplocs, sticking labels onto same. Oh! I was almost about to forget the most important part. I would leave behind brand-new toothbrushes.

Win-win, right?

Ah, yeah. I guess. Except for that one toothbrush in the lot that was coated with a water soluble film containing a double dose of Ondansetron. That’s an anti-emetic drug. What it does is prevent barfing for up to four hours. It’s a mighty useful drug when you’re trying to kill people by poisoning.

****

Today, as was my custom, I made my rounds late in the afternoon, just before dinner. I had noticed that one of my “nurses”, a plump middle-aged single mom to a teenager who rather needed more money than regular nursing could ever give her, had indeed started her evening shift that would last until 11 that night. She would supervise my target as he brushed his teeth and, a little while later, she would help him take his evening pills with a glass of water containing a high dose of pentobarbital, which would cause death by respiratory arrest.

It was the method of choice for assisted suicide, as everyone who’d ever googled it knew, and it worked quite well, especially with old, frail individuals. Most of the residents we’d taken out like this had wanted very much to die. A few were suspected of being ushered into a more or less involuntary suicide by their families, but who were we to question them? Of all the suicides I’d personally arranged over the last few years, I could not think of any who weren’t better off dead. Life in a nursing home, no matter what grand names administrators gave them, was dreadful and it was cruel in plenty of those cases to wait for Mother Nature to do its thing.

No, like I told you before, I have no moral problems doing the job I do. And neither did my nurses. I mean, my “nurses”. We all made good money providing a service that, while technically illegal, was not in this case immoral. I wondered sometimes about the risk of getting caught, of course. Although the issue has been debated for some time and there are lots of progress being made, especially in Quebec, it was still a federal crime to provide someone with the means of killing themselves. Which forced people seeking an end to their pain and suffering to go through indirect channels to get what they wanted, a quick and painless death.

When Abdul first suggested launching our suicide service, I was skeptical. I didn’t think there’d be enough demand to sustain a business.

Boy, was I wrong. We’ve been in operation for four years now and have not come close to being suspected of anything. This was a tribute to our discretion and our choice of nurses who were picked for their ideological support of assisted suicide, their stable lives and of course their ability to remain quiet about what they were doing.

And as for demand, pfft. We got at least one client a week just in Chomedey, and at $9,995 a pop, you could say death provided a fine cushy living indeed.

[next chapter]

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