Sunday, July 30, 2006

My Anti-Career

I've rarely talked about my job over the course of the past six or so months I've had this blog. The reason for this is simple: the therapeutic impetus for the creation of the White Bear's Blog sprung from the fact that I write day-in and day-out reams upon reams of proposals, analyses, memoranda and the like, all in the most uninspired, basic prose possible. This is in stark contrast to my college days which were spent nose deep in literature for seven long years. My passion was English literature of the Anglo-Saxon and mediaeval periods, and I learned Latin, Anglo-Saxon and a smattering of Old Norse along the way.

I dreamed of a career of college-level teaching and scholarly writing; however, my classics professor kindly put an end to this idyllic future by suggesting that, unless I felt I had a unique gift to give the world of academia, I should think twice before going after my PhD. At that time most PhD graduates were driving taxi cabs, teaching ESL or in rest homes, so I heeded his advice and joined the regular labour force after getting my MA.

My entry level job was as the editor of a national magazine. It was a trade periodical specializing in sporting goods, especially hockey and skiing. Serving a relatively small market of sporting goods retailers in Canada it could not afford to pay contributors, the upshot of which meant I ended up writing the whole thing from cover to cover month after month. I spent half a decade discussing the minute differences between certain models of jock straps and hockey sticks in mind-numbing detail, striving to be original and creative on a subjects which were hideously repetitive.

Before my cerebral synapses suffered a complete shut-down, I embarked under rather serendipitous circumstances on phase II of my anti-career path. I left Montreal and came up to the Arctic to teach secondary school subjects to adult Inuit. Although exhausting I found teaching much to my liking, but since all the materials we had at hand were culturally and academically irrelevant to students whose parents were born in igloos and tents, I started to write my own lessons and texts. This led to a relatively short career in curriculum development, wherein I wrote grammar exercise books and edited other texts regardless of whether I had any background in the subject matter.

One of these texts was an introduction to bookkeeping, and I had to learn the basics of double-entry accounting in order to make any sense of the material I was editing. At that time I was on a 9-month revolving contract, and during my down time I attempted to bring the books of several companies up-to-date, a virtually impossible task since many of the source documents were missing. Personally, I found bookkeeping to be a very satisfying alternative to writing and teaching: zero creativity, but a great sense of symmetry and conclusion, and, given the state of the organizations I was working for, a lot of detective work.

My efforts were noticed by my present employer, a regional government, which asked if I would be at all interested in business development. So for these past sixteen long years I have cranked out business plan after market study, blending writing acumen with with basic (and sometimes shaky) accounting skills.

To be honest, I am relatively proud of my business-writing skills: I try to be as concise, pointed, clear and well-argued as possible, and as a consequence my employer shoves other "important" writing jobs my way on a fairly regular basis. However, part of me yearns to try something more gutsy than straight expository prose, hence the start-up of this blog which I had hoped would be a sort of experimental notebook for creative efforts.

Here is my fundamental dilemma in this: how do I find the energy to write for myself after spending my days writing for others? Shouldn't my free moments be spent doing other things as remote from writing as possible?

The sad fact is that there is precious else to do up here other than surf, blog and drink. I am profoundly envious of you to whom blogging on a daily basis seems so effortless and fun: often I have absolutely nothing to say and writing, both at work and on this blog, are nothing short of a chore.

Popular wisdom has it that Inuit have over fifty words for snow. This is a myth: they ran out of new words after about three since there is little remarkable about this substance other than it is cold, white and, up here at least, useful. So perhaps it is my life which is in need of shake-up.

Maybe a career change would be just the catharsis to get me back on track and writing with more joy and enthusiasm. Any ideas?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Small Life in a Small Town

This year has brought a bumper crop of mice and lemmings up here. Our only resident rodents of the arctic (apart from my boarder Yuri who is in my bad books for refusing to share his vodka with me, the cruel, heartless bastard!) can be seen scurrying across the street, hiding underneath houses, scrapped vehicles and old sheets of plywood.

The boom in the rodent population has been paralleled by an unusual number of birds of prey who are summering over this year. I've seen a number of peregrine falcons, gyre falcons, snowy owls and, just perhaps, a golden eagle. These can be seen gliding through the two valleys which border our town and run inland through the mountains from our bay.

The one cat in this town seems to have abandoned its owners for the summer, and can be seen ambling about town, confident of finding fresh food and absolutely disdainful of the dozens of loose dogs roaming the streets. This act of feline bravado seems to verge on the suicidal, since there are no trees at all up here should one of the dogs decide to give chase. But huskies have an absolute paranoia about cats, so much so that upon seeing one they will run away in the opposite direction and cower under houses until the coast is clear. I once saw a female dog in a panic because a cat was nearing her puppies: rather than attack (huskies will take on polar bears), it ran in circles around its infants and tried to corral them into a wooden box. I'm sure those dogs will have nightmares. My theory is that cats, not being indigenous, are almost monsters in a husky's mind.

Up here you become aware of cycles, the periodic rise and fall in animal populations. I predict there will be a lot of foxes born this year since their number one menu item is in such great supply. Remind me to get my dogs vaccinated again. A few years back my husky greeted me one summer morning with a dead red fox, no mean feat since my dog was tied up at the time. We were not able to send the fox head on time to get it analyzed for rabies, and, being a natural-born hypochondriac I spent quite some while agonizing whether my pet had exposed me to the disease. (A dog vaccinated against rabies will not get it, but can still shed the virus through its saliva). But since I'm still alive a couple of years later I seem to have dodged the bullet.

One note about lemmings: the image we have of mass migration and suicide (lemmings jumping off cliffs) was the result of a movie from the fifties which had footage of hundreds of lemmings jumping into the ocean. In point of fact, it was staged by Walt Disney for dramatic effect. This was obviously before the days of the standard SPCA notice in film credits that no animals had been harmed in the film's production.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bière d'épinette

I understand that the more temperate zones of the world are sweltering under a heat wave from Hell. I'll have you know right now we sensible ones are cool, calm, relaxed and sweat-free up here where the outside temperature is a reasonable and sane 12 degrees Celsius, or 54 degrees for you Fahrenheit fans. All the comments over the past few months of "Holy fuck! How could you possible live up in the Arctic?" seem so satisfyingly misguided right now. Suffer.

My favourite summer drink as a youngster was spruce beer, which, like root beer and ginger ale, contains no alcohol. Never mind, it is an amazingly refreshing soda pop with an ironic pedigree. You see, when the original French Canadian settlers had to winter over in Quebec with only salted or brined food, they started to develop scurvy and other diseases which were the result of vitamin C deficiency. The French, unlike English arctic explorers a couple of centuries later, actually had the common sense to listen to the locals how they could best deal with this debilitating condition.

The locals in this instance were Huron, Montagnais or Iroquois, who pointed out that by boiling the bark of conifers they could produce a broth which had amazing curative qualities. Now the French, again like their Anglo counterparts, again had the common sense to add yeast to the concoction, which produced the first alcoholic beverages in North America, much to the detriment of the Huron, Montagnais, Iroquois and a host of other First Nations.

Over the intervening centuries, spruce beer in Quebec lost its alcohol - thank you very much, Catholic Church - and has been a carbonated beverage for almost a century.

Spruce beer can only be described to the uninitiated as like sucking on a liquid 2" x 4". It is heavy - no, that's too weak a term - it is positively overpowered by the flavour of pine. It is like taking a pint of Pine-sol™ and adding a couple of pounds of refined sugar. But for some strange reason, it is incredibly revivifying when the forges of summer incinerate your soul and sap (pardon the pun) all your strength.

Sadly, as in many childhood favourites like real licorice, the homogenizing iron of "modern times" has squeezed out character and uniqueness in favour of the bland and conventional. Quebec is the last place on earth (and I would like to be informed otherwise) of this bizarre soda. A few years ago Crush marketed spruce beer here, but seem to have dropped it. Now it only seems to be a private brand or made and sold in corked bottles in small "Mom and Pop" restaurants, such as those on Notre Dame in the St-Henri district of Montreal.

So, is there any beverage of your youth now regretfully missing from your area? And, Americans, please explain to me the difference between root beer and sasparilla.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mixed Feelings

I was a little hesitant about posting this picture, and I still feel ambivalent towards it. Also, I am feeling more than a little mortal these days.

This polar bear was shot yesterday out on a small island in Hudson's Strait. It is not a full grown bear by any means, but not a baby either. Rather, it is a bruin. Pictured are Adamie, who shot it, and his mother Uiviru.

Up here the first shooting of a species is an important event in a young person's life, a kind of rite of passage and entry into adulthood. Admittedly, more men are hunters but there are some women who like to hunt. The meat from this bear will be divided up and eaten, except, I am told, for the liver which has such high concentrations of Vitamin A as to make it toxic. I am also told the meat is not overly gamey, and quite edible.

The skin will be treated and sold, although this is a small animal and not overly marketable. The going price appears to be $100/foot measured tip of nose to tail. In the movies polar bear rugs have been glamorized as the epitome of romantic sensuality. I find this strange because the fur is rather coarse and would probably irritate the back of whomever was on the bottom. But we men have rarely let our lower partner's discomfort get in the way of a good time.

Much has been written lately about the fate of the polar bear in light of global warming. These animals eat seal almost exclusively, and to sneak up on a basking seal they need ice. My current belief and fervent hope is that this species will adapt to changing climatic conditions and survive. After all, temperatures rose high enough a thousand years ago so as to allow a haying season in Greenland, which is impossible right now. Polar bears as a species apparently broke away from grizzly bears about 225,000 years ago - and the emergence of a hybrid species (dubbed a polargriz) is evidence of just how closely the two species are related.

I have basically given up on hunting and fishing, though I still eat meat. I get absolutely no pleasure in killing another animal, but in the end all that is alive is consumed in some way or another and if I were to ever experience true hunger I would have no such compunction about killing. But now I have the luxury of someone else do the slaughtering for me, and I hope to keep it that way.

My wish is that we call all pass on the next level of existence with a minimum of pain and a maximum of dignity.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

And I'm Wondering Who Could Be Writing This Song?

I don't care if the sun don't shine
And I don't care if nothing is mine
And I don't care if I'm nervous with you
I'll do my loving in the winter.

Shine on, Syd!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Sealift Season Begins

This is the first ship of the season, in this instance an oiler bringing gasoline, diesel, Jet B and heating oil to the community. Since the 14 northernmost communities in Quebec are not connected to the road network, the only means of transporting heavy or bulk items is by ship.

Since this ship arrived very early in the season, I suspect they are trying to manage their inventory of petroleum products so as to maintain their margins by topping up the tanks later in the season having basically hedging their bets. Our fuel prices are set once a year (except for changes in taxes) so we are less at the mercy of market fluctuations. On the other hand, if fuel prices should dip in the fall (as if that is ever going to happen) we are locked in at a higher rate.

In all fairness, this has worked in our favour during the past couple of years, especially last summer when retail prices in the south went through the roof. Right now, we are paying $1.48 CDN per litre (or $5.03US per US gallon). Believe me, we were paying much more as a percentage a decade ago.

The fuel is stored in this tank farm, and transported to homes, offices, stores and airport by a conventional fuel truck. It is pumped slowly from the oiler off-shore through a floating hose onshore, and then by fixed steel pipes into the individual storage tanks.

Fortunately, there have been no spills in this procedure that I have been aware of.

So between now and mid-October we are expecting another 3 or four ships, bringing trucks, construction materials, dry goods and soft drinks for the stores, and maybe a crate of vodka, for medicinal purposes only.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

My Brain Hurts

Call me conceited or call me smart, I am usually able to figure out tricks and puzzles pretty damn often. My smugness has evaporated, however, with this puzzle, the link to which I found over at the site.

Any idea how this works?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

There is No Justice

I rejoice in no one's death. When someone like al Zarqawi croaks, I usually feel unmoved, a bit relieved or a little smug, but I feel no joy.

This is the way I felt upon learning yesterday that Enron found Kenneth Lay keeled over and died of a heart attack, a few month's shy of being sentenced by the courts after being found guilty of breaking every Generally Agreed Accounting Principle in the book to defraud investors, creditors and governments alike. The US government has assessed Lay's share in this monumental fraud at $US43.5 M.

Right wing pundits and cronies stateside will continue to support Lay post-mortem as a martyr, and see his death being some type of rapture whereby he gets to skip final judgement and go straight to heaven.

I hate cheats. And by all accounts Lay was one of the biggest. But by strange irony, and a quirk of the US justice system, he may end up having cheated justice itself. You see, since Lay had not exhausted his appeals before croaking, the initial conviction and resulting penalties might very well be thrown out altogether, so this stain on his character may only be temporary. And if so, I guess his estate gets to keep those millions of ill-gotten gains.

I really hope there is a thorough autopsy on this one, because with all that money up for grabs and greed seeming to run in that family, this might be the ultimate perversion of justice.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thoughts from the North on the Fourth

To my American readership I bid you all a happy and blue-skied Fourth of July. North of the 49th, we have just barely recovered from our national day of celebration on July 1, which carries the extremely ironic and imaginative name Canada Day. Myself I have just emerged from a huge orgy of Canadian bacon smoothered in maple syrup, washed down with a couple of dozen Molson Export beer while watching re-runs of the World Junior Curling Championships.

The 49th parallel, by the way, is known as the world's longest undefended border. And despite the occasional spat about cruise missiles and softwood lumber, our two nations get along pretty darn good. In celebration of our relationship, I would like to enumerate some of the things for which I personally appreciate the United States.
  • Providing a home for our aged pop stars like Celine Dion when they start wetting the carpet.
  • Inventing Velcro™. No more unpleasant bending to tie up your shoes.
  • Providing a huge buffer zone between us and our arch-enemies Mexico.
  • The Eastham, Mass. Turnip Festival.
  • Being such good sports in conceding defeat at the hands of Canadian forces in the war of 1812.
  • The world's most entertaining electoral practices.
  • Adopting the Canadian sports of hockey, basketball and football to such a degree that you'd think they were invented by Americans.
  • Bourbon
  • Generally, just keeping the world interesting.
So enjoy the picnics, fireworks, parades, etc. Just keep the noise down though because we're still hungover up here.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Canada isn't a Real Country

Well, maybe it is, since it has its own currency, borders, anthem, beer, etc. But what I mean to say is that it is not a country in respect of all those secondary characteristics of nationhood.

Take, for example, its creation as a nation. Was the Canadian national character forged in the crucible of revolution or war? No. Unlike our neighbours in the rest of the Americas, there was no Canadian Revolution throwing off the shackles of foreign imperialism. A case might be made for the "rebellions" of 1837 and 1838 in which there were a mere handful of casualties and whose ringleaders were merely kicked out of the country for a few years as punishment. Instead, Canada was born around a meeting table of regional leaders in Prince Edward Island - all very civilized, refined and boring. No baptism of blood for our country, just tea and wine.

Was there a race of Canadians whose origins celebrated in myth and legend? No. Well actually "yes", but let's not mention our aboriginal populations who had their "special" day of lip-service celebration about a week and a half ago. No King Arthur here, no dynasties stretching back to the beginnings of time, no descendents of the gods - just those interested in beaver and bargain basement land prices.

Today is Canada Day, or "Dominion Day" as it was called in my youth. Legally and constitutionally, we still live in the Dominion of Canada, although 99.99% of the population would be surprised to learn that we still are.

But it being Canada Day, and since I only have to face this one time a year, I would like to reflect upon what it means to me to be Canadian. All I can think of are the words of the Quebecois poet/singer Gilles Vigneault:
Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'envers
D'un pays qui n'était ni pays ni patrie

(My country is not a country, it's the opposite
of a country being neither a state or nation)
Although the theme of this poem is comparing the poet's country to a season - winter, obviously - I like to think of my country as land: rock, river, lake, sea. Physical things, things you can touch, not ideas or ideals that come and go with time, that can become enflamed and then dwindle away. It is the quiet permanance of the pre-Cambrian shield, the Rockies, the tundra, things which change at a rate imperceptible to humans.

My country is not its population; indeed anyone living here is, by my definition, Canadian. Whether we wear a stetson, nassak, toque, turban or baseball cap, we merely occupy this country for a brief period of time. Our surnames change, indeed with my wife's people they only started to be assigned surnames half a century ago, and the verbal soundscape of our urban centres changes every decade or two, but the land remains unmoved and untouched by all this human morphosis. The leaves continue to rustle, the waves still lap the shores and the mosquitos will drone on and on for an eternity despite what we do.

At this point I find I'm rambling, so I'll end with an anecdote from some Canadian comedian who had toured extensively in other lands. He said the could tell the number of Canadians in the audience by the amount of laughs he got from this joke:
I saw a religious fanatic the other day walking around with a placard which read: "Repent, for the world ends tomorrow at 9:00PM - 9:30 in Newfoundland".
Did you get it, eh?