Archive for March, 2010

The Reaper came to Gladys in the form of a joyful, bouncing Irish terrier. The same terrier who this fall killed Wilbur and left her as a gray, plump, feathered heap in the front yard, while the remaining chickens cowered fearfully under the farthest recesses of the front porch. 

Gladys with Tail

Gladys with her proud tail intact

Yet these chickens who watched Wilbur die forgot their trauma, and were flying out of the safety of the backyard to raid the neighborhood bird feeders within a week. If elephants really never forget, chickens surely never remember. 

Our next door neighbor accused the terrier’s owner of harboring a chicken killer (sort of the opposite of being a son-of-a-bitch). The owner was not amused, and began to glower at us instead of waving as she walked her chicken killer past our house every overcast Northwest afternoon. Certainly we could not blame her. Yes her dog came into our yard seeking game, but we let our chickens into the front yard. Or rather, they let themselves into the front yard by flying over an inadequate gate. 

In strange irony, when we dismantled our rotting deck and its protective gate a month ago, the chickens lost interest in the front yard and the neighborhood beyond. For the first time since Wilbur’s death, they were free to roam, but instead they mostly kept to the space around their henhouse. And I became complacent. 

Immediate trauma

Then on Saturday it happened. I was in the woodshed when I heard the commotion. Swans are supposed to release a beautiful song at the point of death, but chickens are no swans. They just squawk bloody murder. 

I leapt from the shed with a caulking gun in one hand, which I threw desperately in the direction of the commotion. But this was too many seconds after the attack to make a difference. I was coming from too far away. 

The terrier had run around to the back of the house, found Gladys and seized her, was killing her in her own water trough. The miracle of her survival came from the survival instincts, as it turned out, of the previous homeowner. He had created a sort of bomb shelter to store up emergency food and water, and our kids had turned this into their own fort. As luck would have it, the fort was located next to the chicken coop, and there were two kids inside when the attack came. So right as the terrier had the chicken submerged in the water trough, an 11-year-old boy burst onto the scene and pulled Gladys from the jaws of death. 

Gladys without her tail

Gladys without her proud tail

I came as fast as I could, passing the misused caulking gun and entering the scene of screaming children and traumatized chickens. In the middle of it all stood a young, beautiful terrier. A chicken killer interrupted in the middle of the most natural of jobs. 

So I scratched him behind the ears when the kids were not looking and opened the nearest gate to send him home. Then I set about repurposing pieces of the old rotten deck to erect a hideous but sturdy gate which would keep the chickens in and the dogs out. Would keep the chickens away from the neighbors’ gardens, and keep their dogs away from our chicken coop. Wilbur in Heaven is clucking in disapproval at the slowness of my actions.  And Gladys is running about the yard without her once proud tail. But she is already looking for a way over the fence to the unprotected front yard and the neighborhood beyond. And she is strutting again. Because chickens, after all, never remember.

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O CanadaThis post first appeared on Technorati.com

When a 9th grader asked me to teach him the Canadian national anthem earlier this week, I thought it was a pretty straightforward request, and a quick search online would fill in the blanks. But I was mistaken. Canada has no national anthem.

Most Canadians would dispute this. They made it through a record 14 gold medal ceremonies in the 2010 Winter Olympics, after all, singing the refrain, “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

But what about French Canadians? The English and French lyrics are not aligned. French Canadians don’t stand on guard to protect Canada. Instead, they count on Canada to stand on guard for them–to protect their homes and their rights.  Both sentiments are worthy of a national anthem, but at some point, you have to agree as a nation what it is you stand for. That’s why it is called a national anthem, and not a this-is-what-it-means-to-me improvisation.

French Canadians have remained consistent, singing the same words to the same tune for 130 years. But English-speaking Canadians can’t leave well enough alone. First, they translated the French lyrics but kept the sentiment. Then, they borrowed the tune but gave it completely different lyrics. Then they added extra stanzas. Then removed them. Finally, in 1980, the English lyrics were officially settled, based on an early 20th Century version that focused on the sacrifice of Canada’s sons to protect its borders. Not surprisingly, this version gained popularity during World War I.

Trouble is, these lyrics have nothing to do with the French-language version. And as it turns out, the English version is still controversial. From 1990 up to the present day, both liberal and conservative Canadians have objected to a line in the current English version: “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” Most recently, the ruling conservative party asked the Canadian Parliament to consider reverting the current English line about “sons” to an earlier, pre-WWI version that expressed the same sentiment but in gender-neutral terms. Interestingly, both versions were from the same author, Stanley Weir. No matter, the current opposition party felt that the suggestion was a political maneuver, and not worthy of consideration.

It is time to decide. By 2031, according to Canada’s Globe and Mail,  one in four Canadians will be foreign-born. The need for a unified vision of purpose has surely never been greater, and no single expression of this purpose will be more visible than Canada’s national anthem. If it can pick one.

In the United States, we have struggled with the same pressures from immigration; have been lured by bigotry and protectionism. But from the very beginning, we told a beautiful lie about ourselves and waited for it to come true. We waited more than 200 years and argued incessantly about the best route, but the goal has remained the same.

If it’s a truly national anthem, there can only be one version. It doesn’t need bombs bursting in air, although concrete language definitely helps. The original French Canadian anthem is clear and concrete, and if I were Canadian I would sing the French version. I would sing it badly and mispronounce the words, but I would get the sentiment right, and I would sing it proudly. After all, the composer, Calixa Lavallée, was a Canadian who fought in the American Civil War and died in Boston. We share a vision of unity through diversity, of strength through independence. And we are willing to share our anthem with our northern neighbors if it helps. Especially since we only won nine gold medals, and could stand to hear our anthem a few more times.

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Some people tell me Gene Porter made pretty good barbecue. I wouldn’t know. Every time we went to Dixie’s, we waited for him to come around and ruin our food with his obscenely hot, blackish paste. It was an oily paste so nasty it earned its own name, the Man. It made you sweat and hiccough. It rendered you speechless. It made eating a numbing ordeal. But that was part of the experience, and the experience is why people went to Dixie’s.

We used to see Gene once a week. Watch his family bicker in the kitchen. Sit at the long cafeteria tables in his old RV repair shop. That was back in the heyday, when scores of people would stand in line for 50 minutes during their ½ hour lunch break, waiting to see who he would single out, and hoping it would be someone else.

He singled people out for parking badly, for wearing the wrong clothes, for looking down at their feet when he approached, for just showing up at his restaurant. If you parked badly, he’d demand your keys and move the car himself. Men with sports cars feared Gene.

But worst of all was to be singled out once you had your food because Gene was always prowling the tables with a toothpick in one hand and an old saucepan of the Man in the other. Gene would ask, “How many you want?” If you said you’d take one dose of the Man, he’d give you two. If you asked for two, he’d give you one. The question itself was just a game, and the rules changed from table to table. The only sure thing was that someone at each table would be made to suffer dearly for the amusement of others, whether they were willing or not. 

Other Dixie’s memories:

  • CD player gets stuck, skipping back and forth on Clarence Carter‘s raunchy blues song, “Strokin'” for 10 minutes. Gene goes upstairs to fix it. Starts the song over from the beginning.
  • Kid throws aluminum can in the regular trash. Gene yells across the room at him. Kid explains that he didn’t see the recyling bin. Gene makes him go upstairs, find a permanent marker, and write RECYCLING in huge letters across the front of the can.
  • Server dishes out pork to our Jewish friend right after he orders beef. Do we tell?
  • The Man melts a hole through the bottom of the metal saucepan Gene has been carrying around for years. The same sauce we are ingesting. Gene keeps the saucepan around to show off.
  • The tip jar next to a bucket of peanuts. For the second tip.

We knew Gene had gone through major heart surgery and it had been a very tough fight. We didn’t know about the cancer that would eventually claim him at 71. But it was clear on our last visit to Dixie’s that the days of the big crowds were gone. The prices were high. The family had quit bickering in the kitchen. “Strokin'” no longer played. And Gene sat convalescing at one of his cafeteria tables, vaguely watching television, too weak to turn around and talk to his patrons. So we ate our heaping messy portions of brisket and hotlink quietly, wondering if we were staring at the consequences across the room. It was our final visit to the theater after the show had ended. We put our hand on Gene’s shoulder on the way out the door. Dropped a second tip in the peanut jar. Farewell, Gene.

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Civil War Tweeter

Too cold for Twitter?

Bill Gates just showed up on a list of suspected undesirables, in the company of con artists, Civil War veterans and, well, some of my dearest friends. The list was delivered courtesy of The Twit Cleaner, a free service created by Aussie Si Dawson to remove annoying people from your Twitter stream. While it’s easy to discount the report for its number of apparent false positives, the categories alone are useful as a sort of inverse best practices list—a manual for how to get yourself unfollowed on Twitter. And on closer inspection, you might find that some of the obvious false positives are not so obvious after all.

Reports begin with a list of accounts exhibiting “Dodgy Behavior,” including that most insidious of abuses, “Try to Sell You Crap.” But other behaviors in the Dodgy category, such as inclusion of links with every post, are actually considered by some people to be good behavior. Consultants trying to help marketers establish their brand on Twitter often recommend including a link with every post so that click-throughs can be measured for ROI. They forget to see the Twitter stream from a reader’s perspective, in which the conversation is both motivation and destination. A stream of endless links is not just an annoyance, it’s a conversation killer. And if every post within a community is designed to take participants outside of that community, it begins to look a lot more like advertising than peer-to-peer communication.

The next offenders in the report are all guilty of sloth. Of not tweeting in at least the past 30 days. This is the group most despised by the Twitter Doubters who point to inactive accounts as proof that Twitter is a passing fad, and who complain that the numbers most often cited for success are bloated and inaccurate. But it is here, in this list, that you’ll find your timid friends. They are good people at best, and at worst they are far less annoying than people who tweet Bartlett’s quotations every 30 minutes. It is also here that some of tomorrow’s best conversationalists are getting ready to shine. Sometimes an account that has been inactive for months will suddenly blossom into a busy, insightful stream of great information. When the time is right. So these offenders, more than the others flushed out by The Twit Cleaner, deserve a second chance. Interestingly enough, some of the people I’ve found on this list are “social media experts” who are advising teams across major corporations about how to use Twitter. No need to name names. They deserve a second chance too.

The last major category is dedicated to people who don’t seem to interact with others in the community. It is here, not surprisingly, that you will find the big celebrities. People who are either so famous or so smart that they can’t possibly be expected to follow you or respond to your questions. You’ll also find experimental accounts that are expanding the horizons of Twitter as a medium and by definition will be breaking the rules of good social media behavior. Accounts like @Genny_Spencer which publish real day-by-day accounts of life in Kansas between 1937 and 1941. Or TwHistory‘s re-creation of the Battle of Gettysburg through journal entries from its participants. These experimental accounts are worth following because they show us new possibilities and enrich the medium.

Celebrities, on the other hand, may be less deserving. It makes sense to keep up with people who you are truly interested in, but when it comes to the visionaries, rest assured that their most valuable insights will be retweeted to death within minutes. Better to follow your friends, and those experts who are not afraid to engage in conversation with ordinary people. The big names, whether they are major brand accounts posting endless links to the same corporate website, or major celebrities who only respond to other celebrities, these big names should remain suspects on the list of Twitter abusers.

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