I recently heard that for every 17.5 million flights there is one terrorist incident. It may have been on the CBC or Associated Press or New York Times– I can’t remember. It’s an interesting piece of information. It tells you that a relatively small number of incidents have occurred that might or might not require a dramatic intervention, policy changes, new measures– money.

It’s a big world. At any given moment, people are getting into their cars and driving to work, hopping onto buses, walking. At any given moment, panhandlers reach out their cups for change, children starve to death, people suffer heart attacks, bridges collapse. At any given moment, people fall in love, fall out of love, decide to cheat on their spouses, leave their homes, return to their homes, gamble away their money, commit suicide, order another drink.

Out all of the things happening right now, the world– it seems–is aghast because one man tried to set off a bomb in an airplane in Detroit. The media take up shrieking: our airline security systems have failed. They are imperfect. They must be fixed. Spend money! Delay everyone. Surrender our civil liberties! Only stop another bomber from getting onto another plane.

Of course, if we were perfect and stopped every other potential bomber from getting onto every other possible plane and setting off every possible other bomb, we would still have the car accidents, the suicides, the murders, the accidents, the fires, the wars, the famines, the radiation leaks, the cancers, the psychos who don’t bother with a religion, the drunks who still want to drive, the politicians who vote against health care, the nurses who take too long on their coffee breaks, the Generals who believe more of the same will be different, the generals who believe more of the different will be the same, the adulterers, the preachers, the cult leaders, the activists and the passivists– and life would go on– and the bombers would start on the trains or the boats or the stadiums or the malls or the markets or the churches or the mosques of those who are similar but not quite like us must be prevented from being like us but not quite similar.

Take a Trip to New York

Hi Marg,

We had a great trip to New York. “Hair” was fantastic, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was also fabulous. We hung around Times Square for a while– it looks like a very interesting place– lots of glitter and lots of people around– but not much to actually do except grab a coffee at Starbucks and hang out. However, if you don’t have tickets in advance, you can buy heavily discounted tickets for Broadway shows there by lining up in front of a TKTS booth and seeing what is available. These tickets are typically 40% off, available for shows that night, most of which are in easy walking distance of the stand. You can’t miss the booth– it’s right in Times Square. We didn’t use it because we already had our tickets, and you wouldn’t have been able to get tickets for “Hair” there anyway.

We loved MOMA. It’s on 53rd St. near 7th Avenue– it’s closed on Tuesdays! Especially the 5th and 4th floors, which had a lot of Picasso and other modern artists. Beautiful building, and we really enjoyed lunch in the café on the 2nd floor. You can take pictures (no flash) and most paintings are unprotected (no glass barriers). Right now they are also showing this “installation” that consists of the possessions of a Chinese woman who “kept everything”. It’s actually quite intriguing.

If you want a great view, there is Empire State Building of course, but you will probably have a better experience at the Rockefeller Centre on 50th St. also around 7th Avenue (near MOMA!).

Everything, by the way, is expensive. I find you just have to kind of ignore prices and do what you want to do– you came all this way and went though all the trouble of getting there, so why not?

The Museum of Natural History is pretty good– a bit like our ROM but bigger. It’s on the West side of Central Park (I assume you’ll have a touristy map). Oh– there is a “Titanic” display on 44th Street, near Times Square. I thought it would be kind of cheesy, but it is actually very interesting. It features a lot of exhibits of items retrieved from the wreck, beautifully presented, with lots of basic information. There is even a recreation of a couple of state rooms and the grand stairway. Expensive again ($25) but we thought it was worthwhile. Took about two hours to go through.

We weren’t high on Ellis Island– they haven’t done very much with the building– just placards, text, and pictures, really, though it was interesting to see the island. You won’t get into the Statue of Liberty– it’s all reservations now, and they are convinced that Al Qaeda is determined to attack it (!) so you’ll have to wait in line so they can scan your lunch bag. You do wonder if they shouldn’t be investing the huge cost of it into protecting something that really matters. It would probably be cheaper to buy a spare Statue of Liberty and keep it in a warehouse in Brooklyn in case it’s needed.


To use the toll roads on the way to New York City, you take a slip of paper from a man in a booth and then, when you exit the toll road, hand it to another man in a booth who calculates your fee and collects the money.

This is pretty whacky, especially if you have used the 407 in Canada, which has an automated system. You don’t even pay when you exit– you get a bill in the mail.

But then, we paid 5 or 6 dollars for each stretch of the toll road in the U.S. Ontario’s 407 seems to charge a lot more. Your bill is not going to be less than $15 for even a short stretch, from the middle of Toronto to Brampton.

Audio Books: We listened to the entire audio recording of “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt on the way down and back– about 14 hours, altogether, with time out to hear “Hair”, which we saw in New York at the John Hirschbeck Theatre.

“Angela’s Ashes” is a remarkable memoir, of Frank McCourt’s upbringing in dire poverty in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930’s and 40’s.

The saddest song I’ve ever heard is “Kilkelly Ireland” by Peter Jones, based on letters found in his grandparent’s attic. It might well be the perfect soundtrack for “Angela’s Ashes”. “Kilkelly Ireland” is simply a series of letters, one to a verse, each verse a decade, to a son who has moved away to America, updating him on family events, expressing how wonderful it would be to see him again.

My Brush with Death

In September 1977, I was headed back to Chicago from Calgary after working for the summer for United Grain Growers. I was driving a two-door 1965 Dodge Dart. It took about 37 hours to drive from Calgary to Chicago and, like any crazy teenager, I usually drove it straight through. Who could afford a motel?

I liked that Dart, with it’s reliable but noisy slant-6, and push-button transmission. I miss it. I painted it bright red with a big white maple leaf on the hood.

I can’t remember why, but in late summer 1977, I was driving alone.

In the previous year, by the way, 1976, I had driven back with a friend of mine, Sid Bakker, who owned a Chevy van, and another friend, Charles Kooger, who took turns sleeping in both vehicles. At one point, Charles took over driving for a bit while I snoozed in the van.

In the arid, hot summer sun, the Dodge overheated, the temperature rising ominously on the dashboard gauge. Rather than slow down and drive together, Sid and I went on ahead and Charles stopped for a while to let the Dodge Dart cool. Seems a tad unsociable now that I think about it, but it made sense at the time: why should both of us be held up? It wasn’t a serious problem with the Dodge: you just had to stop and let it cool down every so often.

Eventually, Charles discovered that if he removed the front grill, the engine cooled more efficiently. It wasn’t a flash out of the blue: I think someone in his family had previously owned a Dodge with the same problem.

Later on, we realized that you could also just turn on the heater (with the windows open). The heating system removed heat– of course– from the engine and channeled it into the cabin radiator through a rubber hose, dissipating it. You just had to keep the windows open, of course, to keep from suffocating. End of digression.

Next digression: in 1978, I drove back from Calgary with Karin Schat, who had her “beginner’s” license.

I believe that Sid was working in Ontario for the summer, to hang out near his girl-friend, Irene Vermeer.

Karin drove part of the way, but instead of letting me sleep, she insisted I had to stay awake to keep her company. At one point, somewhere in Montana, I believe, a number of police cars went flying past us with lights flashing– but no sirens. They were looking for an escaped prisoner, because they had a road-block set-up which we had to pass through. End of second digression.

Back to 1977.

1965 Dodge Dart
My 1965 Dodge Dart in Toronto.

I was cruising along, in 1977, south of Calgary, with very little traffic on the road. As I approached an intersection from the north, I saw a pickup truck approach from a side road, west, and come to a stop at the highway. I seem to remember that I thought there was something odd about the way he was just sitting there. And as I think that, I think I’m probably just projecting. There might have been something– the way he allowed the truck to roll forward slowly as if he didn’t anticipate having to actually come to a full stop– who knows?

Anyway, he didn’t just sit there. He waited until I was upon him, at 65 miles per hour, 120 kilometers an hour, and then he pulled out right in front of me.

I was pretty sure I was going to die. There was no time to swerve or stop. I slammed on my brakes and waited for the big, big crunch. My car went into a wild, clock-wise spin, and a few seconds later I seemed to “come to” at the side of the road, facing the wrong way, staring out at the peaceful highway. In the east, I noticed a cloud of dust on the gravel road down which the pickup truck was moving rapidly. There is no reasonable chance that he did not see what he almost did, and very little chance that he didn’t think he might have caused my death. Hit and run. Except we didn’t hit.

I have no idea how I missed him. He might have come to a sudden stop, and my car might have danced around him, in it’s clockwise spin, and swung by him. I doubt he could have gotten out of the way fast enough for me to have avoided him on the right, but it’s possible, but the car was into a clockwise motion, so it seemed unlikely to me.

Now, the car went into a clockwise spin for a reason. During the summer, the right front tire had blown. Being a cheap, poor student, I went to a junkyard to buy a used replacement tire. I saw a lovely one with very good tread and I do remember that the manager told me it was a radial tire and I shouldn’t use it unless all of my other tires were radials. I was stupid and assumed that this was one of those items of folk wisdom one could safely disregard and I bought the tire anyway and had it put on the rim and off I went.

What happened when I slammed on the brakes when that truck pulled out in front of me was this: the front right tire grabbed the road with a good deal more traction than any of my other tires, which caused the car to jack-knife around the pick-up truck.

The radial tire saved my life.

Of course, in other circumstances, that radial tire might just as well have killed me.

I resumed my trip. I never really thought all that much about it until much, much later.

A Visit to Ottawa

I happen to be in Ottawa for a week to take a course on Oracle. Ottawa is actually quite beautiful in the downtown area but the political climate is such that you can’t help but think, boy, they sure are squandering a lot of taxpayer dollars here. The National Arts Centre is quite impressive. And if I look out the window of my hotel, I can stare right into the face of a huge office tower with the government logo on it. It’s 10:00 at night and all the lights are on.

But most of the big expensive buildings here are privately owned, like the Learning Tree Education Centre at 160 Elgin St. It looks like the tower is owned by Bell, which has it’s logo on the front, but you never know nowadays. It’s large by Ottawa standards. It’s gloriously finished, in marble and all kinds of gleaming, expensive materials I don’t know the name of. A man comes out the front with a broom and a dustpan and sweeps up the cigarette butts regularly, even in the evening.

These monstrous towers– dwarves, compared to the World Trade Centre– never made much sense to me. Who said we should allow people to build up 40, 50, 60 stories? Who said that just because you own a plot of land on the surface of the earth means you’re entitled to do anything you want with all of the space above it? Tall buildings take the sunlight away from people, of course. They create traffic problems, and block the view and, again, as the World Trade Centre showed, they’re not very safe. Not for the obvious reason– which isn’t very likely to happen anywhere else soon, but because firemen can’t reach the upper floors. In New York City, the highest floor that can be reached with fire hoses and ladders is the 37th. If there is a fire above that level, you might as well jump.

Which reminds me. I have a great idea to improve the safety of people who work in those towers. I believe that the landlords should be required to provide a hang-glider for every worker. You might think it would be crazy to try to hang glide through the downtown corridors of our modern cities, but it’s a lot better than the alternative.

The hotel is pretty nice but the bathroom is small and the towel rack hangs right above the toilet.

Oracle is the most expensive off-the-shelf software in the world, about $15,000 or more for the server version, and Learning Tree International charges thousands of dollars for a one-week course on how to use Oracle, but they can’t afford to buy enough computers for everyone in the class so I get to share mine with Ahmed. Ahmed’s a real nice guy but the trouble is that he and I are moving at different speeds here, so I sit in my $5,000 seat at times in frustration.

Learning Tree doesn’t scrimp on the amenities. They have these really cool coffee machines that take little plastic cups of freshly ground flavored coffee and whip you up a very tasty shot of caffeine in no time at all. They provide you with fresh fruit, muffins, yogurt. Our trainer works in the real world, usually, and knows his stuff. The lessons are well-prepared and thorough. They were giving us an hour for lunch but the class voted to start at 8:30 instead of 9:00, take 30 minutes for lunch instead of 60, and quit an hour earlier at the end of the day.

Most of my classmates looked bored and frazzled. It’s like trying to learn Russian in one week, immersion. People do exercises as if they have just been instructed on how to do heart surgery and must now repair an aorta, on their own, in fifteen minutes.

I am staying at the Lord Elgin. I don’t think it’s a cheap place, by any means, but other hotels have jacked up their rates so much that it’s actually fairly competitive even though it’s level of service is far higher than it is at, say, the Travel Lodge or Holiday Inn. The elevators are covered with brass. The lobby floor looks like some kind of marble or other high priced tile. There is a bellboy in his funny little uniform. But hotels can be a little crazy. You pay over $100 a night for a good sleep and then get woken up by loud vacuuming and door-banging at 7:00 a.m.

The telephone in the room rings. I kid you not. You don’t hear a phone ring very often anymore in this world. But it rings. It’s a shock to the ears at first, a flash of nostalgia, and then annoyance: the ringing sound really is quite annoying. You would think that at the rates they charge, hotels would be rushing to put in reasonably state of the art equipment, but this phone system has got to be 30 years old. The television too, an old Zenith, would look right at home in the Beverly Hillbillies era. It has one of those clunky brown boxes on the top. When you turn it on, it goes right to the offers for movies. They want $9.95 to watch a movie in your room. This is a big profit centre for hotels. You would think, for $9.95 on a crummy tv, that at least you’d be offered a pretty good choice of some reasonably current movies. Oh no. The offerings this night (October 31, 2001) are:

  • Rush Hour 2
  • American Pie 2
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Legally Blonde
  • Pearl Harbor

They have got to be kidding! All of these movies are either colossal losers or nearly out on video where I can rent it for $3.50, or both. But the real winners are:

  • Three Women and a…
  • On My Face (Mirages of Lust)
  • Nasty Pix 14 Triple Feature (Features 3 Adult Movies) for $12.99

Class joint, this Lord Elgin. On the outside, all expensive baubles and class. Inside, it’s as tacky as a Vegas strip club.