Wednesday, January 14, 2009


It seems as though everybody I know has a four-year-old these days. It's like four-year-olds are the new black. "Where did you get that? It's charming." "Oh, we made it at home with some things we had laying about." I like them. Four-year-olds, I mean. I wouldn't want one of my own (I have nothing to wear with it) but Amanda and I don't mind borrowing other peoples' from time to time.

Anyway, four-year-olds are perfectly splendid until their parents do a stupid thing and decide it's time for them to start playing sports. The terminus of this decision is invariably a form of postmodern sadism called dodge-ball. Dodge-ball was the first and last recourse of every hilariously stereotypical gym teacher I ever had, the agonizing hour when subliterate troglodytes who should have been held back got to take it out on the rest of us - which is to say, on those of us who could count to ten without using our fingers. (That is why the one-handed pushup was invented, incidentally, so that people who can do one handed pushups can count the number they've completed using their other hand). What sick mind invented this game? What kind of sick mind gets children to play it? Well, that's not hard to answer: subliterate troglodytes who should have been held back, but who managed to make it through some shady teacher's college and who are now, vicariously, taking it out on the rest of us - which is to say, on their students who can count to ten without using their fingers.

It doesn't end there, either. I once suffered through the indignity of being on an academic softball team. One would have thought the purpose was to have some fun and then have some beer, but, no. A gaggle of mostly male, mostly pudgy historians seemed to have a real interest vested in winning, and the competition was unpleasantly fierce. Oh, there were women, too — one friend was a machine in the field, nothing got past her, and she rarely came away from the game without significant and hard-won cuts and bruises — but some of the men, at least, seemed to resent their very presence. I recall one game, when we were getting the hell beaten out of us by a chain-smoking gang of economists (seriously, they smoked running around the bases, apparently on the premise it makes good economic sense to pay gigantic tobacco companies to kill you), and a teammate suggested to me that we should change our line-up to keep the "girls" from getting a chance at bat. Fun, hell: winning, and thus manliness itself, was at stake. I don't think we changed the batting order. But we did lose.

Well, I've never been terribly sensitive about appearing all that "manly". That ship sailed a long, long time ago. In my case, it departed during a fifth grade sports day-camp, when, after the locker-room tortures became too much to bear, I begged and received permission from my mother to spend my summer days working in the back room of her flower shop instead. I learned a lot about flowers back there, and about work ethic, because my mother was far less tolerant of lazing about when it came to her business. By contrast, as I've said before, I think there's good evidence that the argument that sports help teach children the virtues of character, teamwork, and fair play is often the opposite of the truth. In my experience, sports encouraged boys to be vicious, taught them that aggression is its own reward, and above all conveyed the impression that to be academically rather than athletically inclined was to be effeminate by definition. I actually know a parent who has said that he doesn't want his four-year old to be involved in such things as music and drama and dance, because kids who are get picked on. Better that he play sports, and be the one to do the picking.

For my male friends and I, our youthful encounter with school and extracurricular sports also taught us — or attempted to teach us — that girls were not merely different but actually biologically inferior. I'll never recall the two weeks that the boys were wrestling on one side of the gym and the girls were square-dancing on the other. Why not have the boys square dance, too? And have the girls learn some wrestling? Some dancing skills would serve me well nowadays: like most middle-aged male academics, I dance with the approximate grace of a rhinoceros. By contrast, I have little use for the wrestling "skills" I learned , whereas I had female friends in high school, who, in all seriousness, could have used some wrestling skills to extricate themselves from more than one date that turned ugly.

Okay. There's an element of hypocrisy here, in that I practiced martial arts enthusiastically for about fifteen years, and have done so on-and-off ever since. But I took up karate in the first place in order to protect myself in gym class. Strife is part of life — schooling should naturally be attended by a certain degree of anxiety. But in my case — and I know I speak for a great many friends here — gym class was attended not by mere anxiety but by actual fear. It was the place where smart kids were bullied and intimidated, and as much by the teachers as by our Alpha-Male classmates. As it turns out, the karate didn't help (it was actually the subject of more ridicule when it became generally known). By contrast, quitting gym as soon as I'd taken my requisite three credits did help. I should note that, as I got older and the karate schools opened their doors to progressively younger and younger students, I witnessed the replication of gym-class behaviour inside these clubs, too. I also witnessed something I'd never seen first hand, because my overworked parents never forced team-sports upon me - parental bullying, and this is worse than any other, because it continued after the game was over.

Oh, I know that there are parents who put enormous pressure on students to perform academically, too, and I wish they would strike the right balance in that regard also. But at least math and French and chemistry can get you something in life. What does hockey and soccer and football lead to, in the long run, for most young boys who take it up or play it for any duration? For one in ten thousand, a professional sports career. For the rest: well, injuries, of course. And memories of being pushed around in the locker room, of being yelled at by other parents and perhaps by their own, and, if they play long enough, the very real probability of academic underachievement. Sarah Palin joked that the difference between pit bulls and hockey moms is lipstick. Not so. The difference is that hockey moms are actually likely to harm children.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Happy New Year, gentle readers.


Okay. I admit it. I'm middle-aged. And like most people suffering from that condition, I have a decades-long track-record of not keeping my New Year's resolutions. Re-reading the ones I made a year ago, I found that I kept only one and failed to keep four others. That's a 4:1 to ratio of resolutions broken versus resolutions kept, and that's depressing. So, here's one idea. I could make resolutions that I'm actually going to keep this year. For instance:


I resolve to not go to the gym.

I resolve to not cut back on the wine.

I resolve to not read Northanger Abbey.

I resolve to not watch less television.

I resolve to not be nicer to stupid people.


I could five-for-five in a snap. Especially with that last one.


But another idea occurs to me. Bear with me here.


Natural selection occurs whenever there is biological reproduction and a finite amount of resources. Certain heritable traits increase the probability of an organism living long enough to reproduce and pass them on (we tend to resemble our parents), whereas organisms without those traits are more likely to die before then. Over the long term, the accumulation of inherited traits can result in the emergence of new species. This is called evolution by natural selection. Some people don't like this idea, just as some people used to dislike the idea that the Earth revolved around the sun, but it happens whether they like it or not.


It's also the reason I'm a fat blob. Well, it's part of the reason. And also "fat" and "blob" aren't quite the right words. Let's call it a pudgy blot. I was in fighting shape well into twenties and then I got a job in a cubicle, lost my hair, ground my teeth down to nubs, and gained forty pounds. Further schooling, with days spent reading and long nights of much beer (and hands-down the worst served anywhere in the world, at UWO's Grad Club) didn't help. Through extreme exertions, I lost the better part of fifty pounds later on, but since then I've gained about half of it back.


At least half the blame for this goes to evolution. You see, you and me and everyone you know is a miracle, in the broadest sense of the word, because all of our ancestors lived long enough to reproduce. And one reason that they did is because they ate whenever food was available.  For most the biological history of our species, the availability of food simply couldn't be taken for granted. For most people living in Canada today, however, that's not much of an issue. There's abundant food everywhere much of it highly processed, high salt, high fat, high calorie, nutritionally worthless food but our DNA is perpetually screaming at us to eat now while we have the chance, which is good advice, from an evolutionary perspective.


So I wonder, sometimes, is it is my personality or my genes (or is there a difference?) that loves warm bread, cold bread, hot buttered bagels, eggs over-easy, eggs scrambled, eggs poached, eggs Benedict, sausage, back bacon, front bacon, and hash-browns; rib-eyes, New York strips, tenderloins, hamburger, chicken breasts, chicken thighs, chicken wings, drumsticks, pork loin, pork chops, pulled pork sandwiches and mashed potatoes with gravy; lasagna, cannelloni, manicotti, spaghetti and sausage meatballs; cheddar, gouda, brie, sage-derby, and camembert;  white wine, red wine, ice wine, port, sherry, lager, and ale; peach pie, strawberry pie, apple pie, blueberry pie, pumpkin pie…oh, God…


There was a rather sad scene in the movie Supersize Me where a young woman, having attended a seminar about the so-called Subway Diet, said remorsefully that the diet wouldn't work for her because she couldn't afford to eat at Subway three times per day. Apparently she believed that the subs themselves had some sort of special weight-loss inducing properties, and, fundamentally, that's the belief that underpins every nutty fad diet that comes along. But the basic solution and probably the only real solution for me and you and everybody else whose biology has not yet caught up with the circumstances of superabundance in which suddenly find ourselves, is stoicism. Recognize the inherent nobility of moderation. Put down that big of chips. Push away that plate. Refuse that dessert. Cork up that bottle of wine. And get some damn exercise. Try this. Do it right now. Lie on your chest. Then, push up. It can be done.  We can appeal to the fitter angels of our nature. For evolution or, if you prefer, the agent that made evolution happen in the first place   endowed us with another trait, unique in all of nature: the intelligence to defy our basest biological impulses.