Journal: News & Comment

This is " December 2000," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.

Sunday, December 31, 2000 - newest items first
# 10:47:00 PM:

Welcome to 2001

Keep an eye out for black monoliths.


Friday, December 29, 2000 - newest items first
# 11:27:00 AM:

A place to which I'll never return

For Christmas, my dad gave me deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard's new book The Eternal Darkness. Although it's about the truly deep ocean -- thousands of metres down, where light from the sun never reaches -- it reminded me of my brief time as a scuba diver, more than a decade ago.

Scuba diving reaches only the thinnest top skin of the ocean. Recreational divers are limited to about 30 metres in depth. By contrast, the average depth of the ocean is something like 4,000 metres, while the very bottom, in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, is over 11,000 metres down. Only two men have ever been there, in a 1960 dive aboard the bathyscaph Trieste. (Twelve people have been to the moon.)

Anyway, I was a scuba diver, plumbing the thin skin of the ocean, from 1988 to 1991, when I developed diabetes. Though it is still theoretically possible for me to dive, the blood-sugar anomalies that are part of my disease make it unsafe, at least in my judgment. Still, I remember vividly from my diving days some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. One incident in particular stands out.

While taking a summer course for my marine biology degree at the Bamfield Marine Station in 1989, I went underwater nearly every day -- sometimes twice a day. As part of my summer research project, I was collecting sea pens (colonial animals related to corals, sea anemones, and jellyfish) from the bottom of Bamfield Inlet, a minute or two's swim from the station itself. It was generally an unremarkable dive -- not in deep water, not far from land, not in any spectacular underwater location. I spent the time concentrated on the sandy, mucky bottom, gathering sea pens in my mesh bag, monitoring my air supply and time under, and making sure I knew where my dive buddy and I were. A spotter kept an eye on our bubbles from shore.

At the end of our dive, we navigated toward the station underwater, aiming to hit the surface as close to shore (and far away from passing boats) as possible. I looked up for the first time in a while.

Ahead of us, the sun shone down through a forest of giant kelp, growing in a band between the steep Bamfield shore and the deeper water where we had been. The deep greens and dappled light are hard to describe, but photos like these ones give you an idea how it looked. Sort of. But drifting there, weightless, after spending half an hour in the gloom of a muddy bottom, was almost mystical.

I miss experiences like that. But I remember them.


# 10:57:00 AM:

Yes, I actually enjoy this stuff

In case anyone doubted that I am a true language geek, here is my latest find (forwarded by a fellow language geek): an entire article dedicated to the question of whether "millennium" has one n or two.

It confirms my long conviction that the word requires two n's -- held since my days wondering about the spelling of Han Solo's ship Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. Which brands me as another type of geek altogether, of course.


Friday, December 22, 2000 - newest items first
# 11:03:00 AM:

Happy birthday, Oma

I neglected to note it here on the day itself, but Monday, December 18, was my grandmother's 90th birthday. She was born Hedwig Olga Anders in 1910, in what was then part of Prussia and is now (I think) in Poland. She has lived through two wars and lost two husbands: Karl Müller in 1947 (to tuberculosis contracted in a Russian PoW camp), and Milos Purkart in 1981 (to heart disease). While evacuated from her home in Berlin in the late stages of World War II, she skillfully bartered with rural farmers to feed and clothe her kids when food and cloth were scarce and money worthless.

In Germany before the War, she had worked cleaning government buildings. After coming to Canada in 1955, she helped her second husband run several resuaurants, including the then-legendary Schnitzel Haus and Hofbräu Haus. Her two children, Erika Stoiber and Jürgen Karl Miller, are both successful professionals in Vancouver, Canada. J. Karl is my dad.

Into her eighties, she was still regularly walking around Stanley Park -- a 10 km trek. Although she had a stroke in 1995 that partially paralyzed her left hand, my Oma has continued to live on her own in a condominum on Vancouver's Coal Harbour. She still makes great food. Last week, she slipped and broke her other wrist, unfortunately, so she has been staying with one or the other of her kids until it heals. So I'd like to say a public happy birthday and wish her well. She has made no history, but she has been part of it, and is a remarkable woman.


Wednesday, December 20, 2000 - newest items first
# 11:26:00 AM:

A tiny sample of shattered life

Yesterday evening, a large glass measuring bowl fell from a shelf in our kitchen, hit the coffee maker, and exploded like a bomb. My wife and two daughters were in the kitchen at the time, and only my youngest (11 months old) was spared from the flying glass. My wife received a couple of cuts to her face, and my older daughter (almost three) had minor wounds on both her feet.

The sound of the crash brought me running out of the bathroom. We all spent the next couple of hours removing glass splinters, putting on bandages, and cleaning up the mess. We had to throw out a number of things, including some food and the coffee maker.

I hope it's not trivializing, but the experience gave me a (thankfully) very small taste of what it must be like when something really serious but unexpected happens, like an earthquake, a robbery, or a real bomb. I can only imagine the disorientation, shock, and chaos that are a regular part of life for people living in war zones or under other reigns of terror. It made me glad we don't.

A friend of ours was teaching in Kobe, Japan when it was struck by an earthquake in 1995. His apartment was supremely messed up, but he was lucky that his building didn't collapse, as others nearby did. He remained for a few weeks, but in the end being there was too difficult, physically and emotionally, and he moved back to Canada. He is now a teacher here.

In our simpler life, everything's cleaned up now, except for the occasional random shard of glass we find. I bought a new coffee maker later last evening, and by 11:00 p.m. we were all in bed, safely asleep.


Tuesday, December 19, 2000 - newest items first
# 12:16:00 AM:

Is music bred in the bone?

More than five years ago, I got married (at a lovely lakeside house), quit being a full-time drummer, and made writing and editing my career. Or so I thought.

Since 1995, I've played a few fill-in shows with my old band, The Neurotics (a.k.a. Hourglass), but recently those shows have become more frequent.

Today, two things made me realize I was turning back into a musician:

  1. I replaced all the drum heads on my kit -- because I realized that some of them were a decade old. Then, while testing out the drumset, I began to rediscover the joy of playing (of course, my recent free trip to New York didn't hurt either).
  2. I started looking at musical catalogs, browsing music Web sites, and visiting music stores again, just for fun.

There's a chance I may get to be the regular drummer for my former band once more. When I left in 1995, I was 26, recently out of university, and still unsure of my role in life. Many of my acquaintances were musicians. Now, I'm 31, married and the father of two girls, long out of school, well established as a technical writer and editor, and pretty happy as a part-time stay-at-home dad. Most of my acquaintances now are computer geeks or other parents.

But my daughters like it when I play drums for them -- they dance, they bang along, they smile and laugh. I'm glad I'm starting to enjoy it myself again too. Maybe it's unavoidable. My grandfather was a choir director and composer (as well as a carpenter), my dad was always the guy who played guitar at friends' parties, and even those two kids of mine seem to have talents for singing and playing instruments -- as much as anyone can tell when they're both under three, anyway.


Saturday, December 16, 2000 - newest items first
# 1:08:00 PM:

Sloshing in a winter wonderland

The southwest coast of British Columbia has Canada's mildest weather, but we're not immune to winter. A couple of nights ago we had our first snow of the season, followed by a howling windstorm. And, as often happens here, the next day was brilliantly sunny and beautiful beyond description.

Now (also as usual) it is raining, turning the pretty snow into grey, sodden slush. The rest of the country may make fun of us for not knowing how to drive in the snow, but at least theirs stays powdery and light. I wouldn't want to be on the Prairies right now, where with the wind chill temperatures are in the minus-50 range -- but at that temperature snow and sand must be the same to drive on.

Since it rains a lot here in the winter, people like me are prepared with plenty of wet-wear clothing. We may look ridiculous, but we're dry.


Tuesday, December 12, 2000 - newest items first
# 10:08:00 PM:

Why evenings are best

As my daughter (who will be three on Valentine's Day, 2001) was falling asleep tonight under the light of our Christmas tree, I noticed that she and her younger sister (now ten months old) look nearly identical when they sleep, though they are two years apart.

It was a warm and fuzzy feeling.


Friday, December 08, 2000 - newest items first
# 5:13:00 PM:

Some better Vancouver photos

In my December 6 note below, about my trip to New York, I tried to find a photo of snow on the local mountains here in Vancouver to show how beautiful they are. The one I found then is okay, but I've since discovered a better alternative. There are some nice ones at Vancouver Views too (but beware the animated flags and other questionable Web design elements).

Don't everyone move here at once, now.


# 8:47:00 AM:

I didn't care at the time. I do now.

Twenty years ago today, a man named Mark Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, the former Beatle. I was eleven at the time, and all I can recall is watching women crying in the streets of New York on television.

I liked the Beatles then -- I had enjoyed making a spectacle of myself mock-performing while the 45 rpm single of "Get Back" played on one of our jukeboxes, which my dad brought home from his job repairing them -- but I didn't make the connection with Lennon in 1980. I liked disco. He was just some guy. (Hey, I was eleven.)

Only in the following decade did I get it. Ten years later, in 1990, I was making part of my living playing drums on Beatles songs in a sixties cover band. I still do that today (see "The city that never rests," below). Through the Beatles I came to love rock 'n' roll, from Little Richard and Chuck Berry through AC/DC, Midnight Oil, Nirvana, and on -- and I went back too, to Muddy Waters and Otis Rush and Robert Johnson.

Last week, I sat behind the drums again in the basement of a hotel maybe ten or fifteen minutes' walk across Central Park in New York City from where John Lennon lived, and died. Three other guys and I played "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" and "I Saw Her Standing There," and more. Some of them, like "Here Comes the Sun," my band has probably played many more times than the Beatles did. We played songs the Beatles wrote, and songs they loved, and songs by people who loved them.

Funny that while I've played all those songs, Beatles and not, hundreds of times, the Beatles tunes -- especially the early ones, when Ringo really pounded and Paul went "wooo!" -- are still among the most fun to perform, and to hear. "I Saw Her Standing There" was the first track on the first album the Beatles released, coming up on forty years ago. Musicians know, though, that if things are going a little slow, that song can still get people dancing in seconds.

I never knew John Lennon, and maybe wouldn't have liked him if I did. But I'm glad he was around. It's too bad he didn't see his kids grow up.


Wednesday, December 06, 2000 - newest items first
# 10:33:00 AM:

The city that never rests, never mind sleeps

This past weekend, I took a whirlwind trip to New York City in order to play drums with my old band, the Neurotics, at a private party at the very exclusive Sherry-Netherland Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Midtown Manhattan. We left Vancouver early Thursday morning and returned before noon on Saturday. It was my first trip to New York. As a naive first-timer, here are my impressions:

  • They call it the City That Never Sleeps. It's more than that. It's the City That Never Rests. We arrived late on a Thursday night, and the streets were busier -- with pedestrians, cars, buses, trucks, taxis, and police officers -- than anything I've ever seen here in my west-coast backwater, or even in London or Moscow. The sidewalks were packed. The cars were honking constantly. Cops said "move along!" Yow.

  • Most of the stereotypes are true, but they tell little of the story. The buildings are massive and tall. The cab rides are stomach-churning. People are generally better dressed than in most cities, and there seems to be an equal number of overweight balding men who ought to be named Lenny, even if they aren't, and overly made-up women in fur coats walking very small dogs. You get jostled a lot, but people aren't really that rude in general. There are random sewery smells. Delis and ridiculously expensive restaurants sit cheek by jowl. Most things cost too much.

  • Walking around Midtown, we constantly stumbled across famous places we'd heard about all our lives. "Oh look, there's Saks Fifth Avenue!" Or Bloomingdale's. Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building. Central Park. The Chrysler Building. Grand Central Station. Macy's. Times Square. Park Avenue. Madison Avenue. Broadway. 42nd Street. And we never even got far enough south to see the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Statue of Liberty. We made it as far north as 81st Street in the Upper East Side, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  • For a city that is, on average, colder in the winter than Vancouver, people seem remarkably ill-adapted to the chill. Many people wore a lot more warm clothes than we did, and buildings were often overheated, so that coming in from the minus-5 (Celsius) air outside was like stepping into a sauna.

  • The food is consistently good, from the smallest corner deli to real sit-down restauarants. Oddly, the many bars and other drinking holes are extraordinarily poorly lit. Several times, I passed by a place on Thursday night and thought it was closed. Peering through the window, I saw it was packed with people standing, talking, and drinking in the half-light. Strange.

  • Other than the many famous places listed above, shopping is unremarkable, because NYC is populated with the same stores as everywhere else, from the Gap to Starbucks. In other words, I could buy most of the same stuff at home, cheaper. So I didn't buy anything except a New York logo touque (or, as they call it, a "hat").

  • Because of the high density, the repetition of stores is remarkable. In Midtown at least, there's a McDonald's, Duane-Reade pharmacy, packed-to-the-walls electronic store, T.G.I. Friday's, Tad's Steakhouse, or -- yes -- Starbucks on almost every block.

  • There are no back alleys or single-storey structures, in general. Each city block is a solid mass of buildings flush with the sidewalk, sometimes many, sometimes one huge monolith. This time of year, many are decorated for Christmas, and it's simultaneously quite pretty and imposing.

  • Even in polyglot Vancouver, I've never heard so many languages spoken or seen such a variety of faces in such a short time.

I can see how someone living in New York, with its pace and variety, might find everywhere else a bit dull. But Vancouver is my home, and it is beautiful, especially on a day like today, with the sun shining and snow fresh on the mountains.


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