Shop the madness! Or, grocery shopping etiquette in 11 + 2.5 easy steps

Anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love shopping (and for those who haven’t read this blog before, “love shopping” is total, unadulterated sarcasm). If I die and go to hell, the devil will give me a shopping cart and tell me to shop ’til I drop.


Today, due to a confluence of evil forces, I was forced to shop in my local No Frills, as well as WalMart, and finally, at Costco. And I also had to shop not only for my family, but for my mother as well. Pretty damn close to that hell scenario above, right?

Anyway, likely because the stores were closed yesterday for Good Friday, today should have been renamed Evil Saturday. Everyone seemed to need to feel the smooth plastic of a shopping cart in their hands. Everyone seemed to need to line up endlessly. And here was I, caught in the middle of this retail maelstrom. In fact, at one point, when I was in an aisle that could accommodate at least four carts side-by-side, and I was locked in position for a solid five minutes, I looked over at my wife and said, “kill me now.” Several people snickered. But no one moved.

Anyway, having spent so much time in line, I hereby present Tobin’s Rules for Shopping.

parking_lotRule 0: Don’t park like a douchenozzle
Yes, I’m starting at rule 0, because you haven’t even started shopping yet, and already you’re pissing people off. I’m going to try and be as clear as I can here: A parking space is an area of pavement usually bordered by three yellow lines. You park your vehicle so that it is contained within those three lines. To do anything other than this is to park like a douchenozzle. How does a douchenozzle park, you ask?

  1. A douchenozzle will take up two spaces, either on purpose or because they lack the basic talent to navigate a vehicle. You can tell the difference, because the one that does it on purpose will likely park it at a rakish angle, where the no-talent will just be over one of the lines by a foot or two.
  2. A douchenozzle will park where there is no parking space whatsoever. Usually closer to the store than anyone else, often right in the path of other cars.
  3. A douchenozzle will foolishly believe they will only be a few minutes, so they don’t need no stinkin’ parking space. Instead, they’ll park right up at the curb beside the store, usually blocking everyone else’s access to and from the store. Often, the douchenozzle themselves will stay in the car, smoking and playing obnoxious dance music at an obnoxious volume while they wait for their significant other (usually the one with the clothes that were in fashion in the 80s, back when they were twenty, or they’re wearing clothes that are five sizes too small for them because it makes them sexy, or, as they say, “schmexy,” or they look like they just came off a welfare-cheque financed bender) runs in for the stuff.

Don’t do any of this. Douchenozzle.

Rule 1: Don’t block the entrance
When you have made your list, grabbed your coffee, somehow managed to find a parking spot, remembered your bags, dug out a quarter and snagged a shopping cart then you’re already ahead of the game. So why the hell do you feel it’s necessary to get just inside the doors, then stop? Why? Get your ass all the way in, find a quiet, or at least an out of the way spot by all that weird fruit that no one buys, then get your shit together. Dick.

Rule 2: Watch where you’re going
Yes, there’s all sorts of things to do when you’re shopping. Keep track of that shopping list. Drink your coffee. Avoid all the morons. Scan for sales. Compare prices and sizes because it’s stunning how often they rip you off with the jumbo sizes. Etc. Etc. Etc. But seriously, it’s no worse than driving a car. So why do so many people simply choose to look sideways, or at their list, instead of where the hell they’re going? If you do this shit in the grocery store, I guarantee you’re the type to text and drive and I trust you will end up on the Darwin Awards shortly. And if you do this, and don’t know what the Darwin Awards are…don’t worry. You’ll find out. Moron.

Rule 3: Don’t walk forward and look backward
If you’ve already passed something, then you should have damn well looked at it then. If you didn’t, you have two choices: Back up safely, or loop around and check it out on the second pass. You should not be staring at it, trying to decide if it’s right for you, as you continue to walk away from it. There’s people’s heels in front of you, moron. Those damn carts hurt when they nail you right on that tendon. Again, if you do this here, you likely do this when you drive and obviously the sidewalks are no longer safe to walk. Shithead.

Rule 4: Don’t block the lane
So you’ve read the first three and you’re feeling pretty satisfied because you can honestly say, “I’ve never done any of those.” Well, then how about this perennial gem: Instead of slamming into people by looking backwards or sideways, you leave your cart to go on an exploratory side expedition, because those Ballpark Hot Dog-flavoured Potato Chips are strangely intriguing you. So you leave your damn cart in the middle of nowhere while you go off to scan the product. You’re like that stupid geologist from the movie Prometheus that sends all those flying robots to map out the place, then gets lost. Because no one leaves their cart for a second. They leave it, a large, grocery laden, steel-mesh chunk of flotsam, for a few minutes while everyone else now has to navigate around it. Watch out for me, because I’ll toss that damn cart down the nearest aisle and I don’t care how much stink eye you give me. I’ve done it. Fool.

Rule 5: Paying more attention to your phone than to the task at hand
Okay, yes, they’re convenient. Yes, people can now call you/text you/FB you/Tweet you and every other thing they pack into mobile devices these days. I use mine to hold the shopping list. So, they have their uses. But it is not acceptable to stop in the middle of a crowded grocery store to update your FB status.
FBIt’s not cool to slam your carts into other shoppers’ carts because you’re texting your BFF. That’s not an LOL. Or a ROFL. That’s a GTFOOMW (Get The Fuck Out Of My Way). That’s a WWTHYD (Watch What The Hell You’re Doing). Asshat.

Rule 6: There’s always someone behind you
Which means, when you decide to take twenty minutes to decide between the President’s Choice Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookies and the President’s Choice Decadent Chocolate Chunk Cookies, you’ve likely chosen to stop your stupid cart directly beside the person who is updating their FB to complain about the dude taking twenty minutes to decide between the President’s Choice Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookies and the President’s Choice Decadent Chocolate Chunk Cookies. Meanwhile, there’s a logjam of people stuck behind you both. Now, most people are polite. But if you hear a low, menacing, “Jesus H. Christ on Toast!” behind you, that’s me wondering if I hit you hard enough, will you press into the mesh of your cart and have to explain to your significant other why you suddenly look like you came out of a waffle iron. So move. Cretin.

express-lane-is-THIS-manyRule 7: Learn to count prior to jamming up the 8 Items or Less line
So you’ve managed to navigate the hazardous waters of the grocery store and now you’re ready to check out. Then, after a flawless performance, you then blow it all by parking your sorry ass in the wrong line. This one’s a particular pet peeve of mine. You can read further adventures here. Here’s a crazy suggestion: Try these steps.

  1. Read the sign and ask yourself, “How many items do they allow in this aisle?” It could be 8. It could be 10. It could be 12. Hell it might even be 15. In any case, between your fingers and your toes, you have enough to count them. Do so.
  2. Don’t be a bitch and say, “Well, I’ve got three loaves of bread, but really, they’re only one product, so that counts as one.” No it doesn’t. If you’ve got three, then count three.
  3. Count up all your items.
  4. Now here’s the tricky part. If the number of items in your cart or basket exceeds (which is a fancy-schmancy word for “is more than”) that number on the sign, then you cannot go in that line.
  5. Judge yourself accordingly

Trust me, this will save you a lot of harrasment at my hands if I happen to be the dude standing behind you, counting your items loudly, then bemoaning the fact that our school system no longer sees fit to teach our youth how to count. Pus bag.

buttRule 8: Don’t butt in line
So you’re looking at those horribly long, slow moving lines and even the 8 Items or Less line is stunningly long (likely with those that can’t count past five), so you find someone with a cart that’s bulging with food items and groaning under the weight and, when the person looks the other way, you choose to just deke in front of them. After all, you’ve only got a few little items, right? They won’t mind.

Yeah, they will. There’s a reason we use the terms butt and ass interchangeably. Your time is no more important than that poor bastard you just cut in front of. You are no more important than anyone else, no matter what your mama told you back when you were four years old. Buttmunch.

Rule 9: Next in line means next in line
There’s five of you in line, but then a new cashier comes in, opens up her register, smiles and says, “I’ll serve the next person in line.” Okay, just to be clear on this, what she really means is, I’ll serve the next person in line. What she definitely doesn’t mean is, I’ll serve the person that can elbow their way here the fastest. What she doesn’t mean is, I’ll serve the asshole who thinks they’re far more important than anyone else next.

I know it sounds crazy, serving the person that’s been in line the longest. But that’s really what they mean. So don’t be that jackass that shows they don’t understand rudimentary English, ‘kay? Jackass.

Rule 10: Don’t leave your cart or your fat ass in the laneway while you pack your groceries
This fits with rule 6. Because you’ve chosen to block the laneway with your cart and your ass while you pack your groceries at a glacial pace, the person behind you can’t even get up to the cash register to pay, even though they’re trying to get out of the way of the dude behind them. And you’re all doopty doopty doo, look at me packing my chocolate chunk cookies! The corollary to this is you getting the hell out of that laneway, but then scooting around to the far side and parking your fat ass in someone else’s way while you’re all doopty doopty doo. Doo-doo head.

Rule 1 Revisited: Don’t block the exit
You’re now heading out of the store. Again, rule 6 still applies. So don’t stop just before, or just after, the exit doors to dig your sunglasses and keys out of your purse. Don’t stop to adjust your junk before you head on out. Don’t stop and choose that moment to put your change/debit card/credit card in your wallet. You’ve made it this far, just keep going, stay the hell out of other people’s way, get to your car, then you can do all that shit. Bunghole.

shopping-cartBonus Rule…Rule 11: Put the cart in the corral
You’ve likely invested a whole quarter for the use of that cart, don’t you want it back? And even if you don’t, the rest of us don’t want to have to dodge the carts scattered willy nilly through the parking lot because you were too frigging lazy to walk it the twenty or thirty feet to the corral. Really, is it that much of a chore? The cart’s empty, it’s light. And besides, this is where you can have fun, putting one foot up on the cart and scoot it up to 15 mph and ride it across the parking lot, the wind blowing wildly through your hair. Yes, you look like a five-year-old, and some other asshole will likely blog about what a shithead you are, but who cares? It’s fun.

Otherwise, you’re just leaving a big chunk of metal around to scratch someone else’s car. Dork.

Rule 0.5: Learn how to back up
You’ve done it! You’ve run the gauntlet, you’ve gotten out alive, hell, you even had a little thrill returning the cart to the corral. Now, you just have to back the vehicle out of the space and get home. So how about this? When you’re backing up, actually look where you’re going. I guarantee that old dude with the walker, or the mother with her child in the cart weren’t really planning on a visit to the Emergency Room because you plowed your back bumper into their fleshy parts. Other cars are running up and down that parking lot. People are walking. Carts are blowing by. So when you back out, ease out, look behind you, look to your left and right to ensure nothing is coming at you, then and only then, can you vacate that space and get your ass gone.

Because, honestly, you wouldn’t want someone calling you a bad name, would you?

Of course not.


Cruising to fifty, part three: Volare and a box of frogs

This is the third part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October.You can read part one here and part two here.

A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.

E volavo, volavo felice più in alto del sole ed ancora più su
Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiù
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me

And I flew, I flew happily to the heights of the sun.
As the world slowly disappeared out there,
A soft music was playing just for me.

Volare – Domenico Modugno

October 7

Today started off with two missions. One was food, and one was my ZZ Top goal: to go and get myself some cheap sunglasses. Turns out I left mine back home.

When you live with me for any length of time, you’ll find out I’m a goddamn miserable bastard until I eat something. I’m not one of those skip breakfast kind of guys.

So, our first official morning on the cruise, I sit out on the balcony quietly going mad. Karen’s dragging her ass, getting ready at a comatose snail’s pace as I try and not say something snarky. I’m starving and I’m praying she’s going to get her face on before they shut down breakfast. There’s a small, somewhat compassionate part of me that reminds me she didn’t even get a nap yesterday, so she basically ran almost thirty-six straight hours and she’s as jetlagged as I am. Still. I’m starving!

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 154-2And I’m fifty now, so I’m allowed to be curmudgeonly.

Anyway, we make it to breakfast, and met some older travelers from Norway and a younger couple from Baton Rouge, Louisiana that had the coolest accents.

Today we were a little more awake, so we took a more conscious walk around the ship and got a better lay of the land. Saw a couple of cozy little bars that might be nice to relax in later, then we stumbled into the presentation of the cruise itinerary. Let me give you a taste: “So, dere’s a stop at Mykonos (mee-kun-oze) dat’s nice an’ bee-you-tee-ful. Sure to be a highlight of da crooze. It’s a nice an’ bee-you-tee-ful place in Mykonos.” As we listened, we quickly determined everything was nice an’ bee-you-tee-ful and sure to be a highlight of da crooze.

We decided this presentation was not a highlight of da crooze an’ we left. On the way out, I went for a coffee refill and found a build-your-own-taco station. Yeah, baby! Nothing like unexpected bonus tacos. Did I mention I was starving?

We headed back to the cabin to get ready for our first stop. Bari, Italy was in sight and, as we came closer, I caught sight of some dolphins trailing the ship for a few minutes. The Mediterranean is almost smooth as glass today, and it’s a nice and bee-you-tee-ful 81 degrees F. Sunny and bright.

There was a point when I was leaning on the balcony rail outside our room, when the guy from the cabin next to us came out to light up a smoke. We got talking and I fell in love with his English accent. He was from Lincolnshire and, while we chatted about several subjects, it was one statement that stuck out. We talked American politics, so different from the British and Canadian politics we were both used to, and he mentioned Sarah Palin. Then he said, “Oh, that one’s as mad as a box of frogs. Crackers, she is.”

Mad as a box of frogs. Love that expression.

Back in the cabin, as we got ready, I pulled out the walking shoes I’d bought specifically for the trip and remembered something my son had said when I first brought them home. “They’re really nice, dad,” he said. “Do they come in men’s?”


Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 173

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 168

A gorgeous city that venerates St. Nicholas…yes, the old St. Nick of Christmas. Our very pretty and very personable tour guide, Frederica, gave us the lowdown on all things Bari. She was very informative and a lot of fun.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 178

She talked about one of the area’s chief exports, olive oil. Apparently there’s a legend about why there’s so many olive trees (about 60 million) in the area. The story goes that, when the Italian men went off to war, their wives–our tour guide called them the wee-mun–were very unfaithful. Each time they confessed to their priest, they were told to stop, but also told to plant an olive tree. Interesting that an area that specializes in “extra virgin” olive oil has a legend stemming from local wee-mun who couldn’t keep their clothes on.

Frederica told us olives need six Ss to grow:

  1. Sun
  2. Stone
  3. Scarcity of water
  4. Silence
  5. Solitude
  6. …and one other that I can’t remember.  Maybe it was Sex, judging from the story above.

Our tour bus finally came to the stunningly gorgeous city of Polignano, birthplace of Domenico Modugno, the singer of the song Volare, which means “to fly”. There’s even a statue of the guy, even though he moved from the city when he was nine years old. Still, the guy had a huge hit in 1958 with the song and everyone from Frank Sinatra to David Bowie has done a version of it since.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 187

We first got to see the city from the outside, marveling at the stone and whitewashed buildings built right on the cliffs, towering over the Mediterranean. If you look closely, you’ll see caves at the base of the cliffs. There’s hotels and restaurants in them now.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 188

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 189

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 193

Then we entered and were guided through the maze of its pathways, twisting and splitting off, down hills and up stairs. And everywhere, tiny little shops, eateries, bed and breakfasts and, of course, gelato shops. When I say tiny, I doubt many Canadians or Americans can appreciate this. I know I wouldn’t have been able to without seeing it for myself. North Americans are so used to buildings build to specific standards, to safety codes, etc. Then, to walk down into a cavelike room where, when it’s Karen and I and two others, it becomes hard to navigate and you have to scrunch up against one of the walls to let someone pass. No back entrance. If it’s in the shop, it came in through the front door.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 215Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 208

Much of the city was built almost one thousand years ago, possibly even as much as two thousand. The stones of the streets are worn smooth from all the steps they’ve borne. After a while, we’d think we had the city’s layout down, then we’d find some quaint little offshoot we hadn’t seen before.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 223Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 219

At one point, one of the other guides, who spoke just enough English for us to converse, saw me taking picture after picture after picture and asked me what the particular attraction was to the city. I could tell he honestly didn’t really see it. I explained to him that I came from a country with about 150 years of recorded history, that our buildings and architecture, even our mentality toward it, was completely different. I don’t think I got my point across, and that bothered me somewhat.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 232Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 229

We had some spare time and, to my utter dismay, the ZZ Top goal would need to wait. I found no acceptable sunglasses that day. on the way through the port into Bari, I grabbed a pair. Please disregard the previous crossed out statement as my wife points out that, seven pictures back, I am, in fact, wearing the ZZ Top specials. And yes, she’s gloating about it. She states the reason I forgot is that I am now five decades old now and suffer from CRS (Can’t Remember Shit). She’s insufferable.

And now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 224Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 242

Eventually, we clambered back on the tour bus to take us back to the ship. Of course they played Volare on the way back and a spontaneous, horrible singalong occurred. None of knew the words, so it was “blah blah mumble mumble VO-LAR-EH! OOOOH-OH!”

Still, eventually the song ended and it took all the self-control I had to not bitchslap the foursome behind us. Here we are, surrounded by a couple millennia of history, architecture and beauty, yet all they could talk about was Jersey Shore and getting drunk.

Mad as a box of frogs. Crackers, they were.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 262Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 261

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 249See part four here.

Cruising to fifty, part two: Frodo and the immovable bus

This is the second part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October.You can read part one here.

A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.

Have mercy
Been waitin’ on the bus all day

ZZ Top

October 6 – My birthday!

I turned fifty over the Atlantic, but didn’t notice it until a couple of hours later. Could be I was tired. Could be I was old. Either way, I’d crossed that threshold.

The flight landed twenty minutes early and for the first time, I stepped on European land. Not that I had time to think about it. I think we’re spoiled in Canada and the U.S. when we walk off the plane and straight into the terminal. In Venice, we walked down a flight of stairs, stood on the tarmac and a crazed transport driver came by and did his best to make us puke, or at least drop us all to our knees on the ten minute drive from plane to terminal. Sharp turns with no warning, rapid acceleration and rapid stops were the order of the day.

We managed to hold down our nasty airline food and, once in the airport, desperately look for a washroom. I was quite happy I was male at this time, as I was able to simply walk in, find a free urinal, and do what I needed to do, which was to pee in my first European urinal. You’re a peein’ indeed! My wife, on the other hand, lined up for a solid twenty minutes. We both survived, then got our baggage, then we assembled to wait for our transport to the ship. If I’d known exactly how exasperating it was going to be, I would have hired a taxi. Ah well, hindsight’s 20/20, right?

So the first endurance test was to wait within the terminal. We had to wait until all the Transat travelers arrived. No biggie. The plan was to hop on the bus and get delivered to our various floating holiday accomodations, the Divina, the Jade, and ours, the Splendour of the Seas.

It wasn’t a horrible wait. We’d landed by noon local time, got our luggage by 12:30, and by 1:00, a short, balding, slightly anxious, hobbit-like driver walked us from the terminal to the bus with his hand raised to shoulder height–this from a guy barely scraping 5’3″–as though that hand could be followed through all of Middle Earth to the depths of Mordor.

Ten-ish minutes later, we were at the bus and we separated our luggage out depending on which ship we were headed to. A second group showed up, all headed for the Divina. We were all told to wait outside the bus. It was about ridiculously hot outside, but one of the other passengers described the bus as being “about 900 degrees” so we figured outside was better. Twenty minutes later, our hobbit driver started up the bus and the air conditioning and loaded us on. We were left with the impression we would leave shortly and, after eight hours in a cramped seat on the plane, here we were again, stuffed into a seat with no legroom. Meanwhile, Frodo was out chatting up another bus driver and sweating profusely.

Soon, a couple more groups showed up, stowed their luggage and got on the bus. It’s probably important to note at this point that this bus could likely seat about 70 people. I mention this because that first group I mentioned? The ones going to the Divina? There were eight of them, four couples. They obviously felt a deep, abiding love for each other and very much looked forward to spending a week with each other at sea, because when they got on the bus, they each claimed a section of two seats for themselves. Yes…sixteen seats for eight people. Four couples. Or, should I say, eight ignorant assholes. The other groups that got on the bus kind of gave them all the stink eye, then moved toward the back of the bus.

Anyway, it’s now about 1:45, almost two hours since we’ve landed, when Frodo finally climbs aboard and puts it into gear. Yay! I think, prematurely. We drive out of the parking lot, down a short laneway and get out to what looks like a main thoroughfare–a total distance of maybe a quarter-mile. Frodo then says, “Sorry!” and some other stuff in Italian that we couldn’t catch, then pulled a U-turn and we headed right back to the dreaded parking lot. He parked us in the exact same spot and leapt from the bus and ran back to the terminal.

Several minutes later, sweating worse now, he showed back up with more people and luggage.  He’d stow their luggage, direct them on the bus, grab a little fanny pack from the driver’s cockpit, say something about dropping off tickets, then scoot back to the terminal. Ten minutes later, he’d show up again.

With more travelers and luggage. Which would start the whole cycle all over again. Stow, direct, fanny pack, tickets, scoot, ten minutes.

Every time he came back, there was a feeling of anticipation, of woo-hoo, we’re on our way! Each time we saw more travelers, that feeling would deflate again. This went on for five full trips to and from the terminal for Frodo. By now, it was just getting old.

A solid hour after he’d left the parking lot, then returned, somewhere around 3:00, we’ve now been in Venice a total of three hours and seen nothing but an airport, a parking lot, a bus and a tantalizing glimpse of what lay beyond. We finally left the parking lot again, the bus packed to the gills and the ignorant assholes finally having to give up their individual sections and sit with each other.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 064

Our first real glimpse of Venice from the bus.

On the way into Venice

On the way into Venice

Our first glimpse of our ship

Our first glimpse of our ship

Fifteen minutes later, we were at our boat. We’d waited almost two and a half hours for a fifteen minute trip. Goddamn.

Anyway, the Royal Caribbean staff were all young, attractive and friendly and we were welcomed with big smiles. From their welcome, we then walked down a long, covered gangway and then…then we were on our ship. And it was beautiful.

The ship from the gangway

We found our way to our room and it actually had a birthday greeting right on the door. Karen let me open the door and I found the room decorated with birthday s

tuff. Holy crap! In all the fuss with Frodo, I’d forgotten it was still actually my birthday.

By now, it was about 3:30 local time, or about 9:30 am by what my internal clock was telling me. We’d been up for about 28 straight hours. We were tired and hungry.

We headed down to the solarium–a beautiful area, by the way–and had an excellent carved roast beef sandwich and it was nice to just sit in a comfortable chair with legroom  and look out at Venice sprawled in front of us.


At 4:30 (29 hours and counting), everyone had to attend muster–gathering beneath our designated lifeboat (ours was #10) and were taught, in English, Italian, German and Spanish, how to put on a lifejacket. It was interestingly refreshing to not get the instructions in French, as we would have in Canada.

We took a couple of pictures then went back to the cabin for a nap. Okay, I went back for a nap.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 083

I’d just laid down when Karen dragged me back out–twice–to look at interesting things. The launch of the ship out of port and Venice sliding by.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 085

I should say, it’s always been a dream of mine to go to Venice. And here it was. I wanted to enjoy it. I truly did. But 30 hours awake and 4500 miles of travel by plane, bus and ship had done their work. I fell on the bed and died.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 086

I woke up at 6:30. Karen had been too excited to sleep, so she’d taken pictures and unpacked. I’d slept through it all.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 090

It was time for dinner, so I clambered into the teeny, tiny shower and scrubbed off the exhaustion of the past day and a half, got dressed and we headed down for dinner. I had an excellent dinner of pork medallions, mashed potatoes and mushrooms in a ragout sauce with a Caesar salad. Dessert was Strawberry Povlova…which was crazy good.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 099

We took a brief walk around the ship, then came back to the cabin and we both fell down in exhaustion.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 114

And that’s how I turned fifty years old. A little rough in spots, but overall, it turned out fantastic. Story of my life!

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 124-2Tomorrow was going to be a better day.

See part three here.

Higher education?

A couple of things have converged on me in the last couple of days that have really made me wonder about the education we provide our kids.  I’m not limiting to just high school or just university.  I’m throwing my arms around all of it.

A couple of weeks back, I sat down with my son’s Grade 10 Mathematics book and taught myself how to factor complex trinomials.  No, I won’t bore you with any examples or throw a pop quiz at you.  But yes, I had to re-teach myself Grade 10 math.

Last night, my daughter came to me and asked me to change the passwords on her Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook accounts.  She was trying to get through her readings for first-year Journalism and didn’t want to be tempted away from the horridly boring texts.

Finally, this morning I opened my work email where I receive a once-weekly email from LinkedIn on the stories they feel I must read to carry my career onward and upward.  One of the stories was titled When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids.  I’ll let you read the article on its own, but the gist is here:

I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.

He goes on to say:

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

Now, I live in Canada, and that’s also where my daughter is attending university, so things are a touch different here in the Great White North.  But not that much different.

So let’s revisit my first scenario…my re-learning Grade 10 math.  In high school, I dug math and science.  They were my things.  My Grade 13 courseload consisted of Algebra, Functions & Relations, Calculus, Physics, Chemistry and English.  What, out of all that do you think I use today?  More than you’d think.  Mostly the English, but I do delve into the others a bit.  For work?  No.  For fun?  No again.  No, I use all my high school learnin’…to help my son and daughter get through their high school years.

There.  I said it.  The only thing I use it for is to perpetuate the same stupid system I went through 30 years earlier.

Do some people use all those equations and formulas?  I’m sure they do.  I’m sure, right now, there’s probably some poor bastard factoring a complex trinomial using only pen and paper.  I couldn’t guess why, but I’m sure somewhere, it may be happening.

But why?  We live in the age of computers that can do a lot of this for us.  I’m not saying we need to forget it.  Far from it.  But I’d like to take a survey of a large metropolitan area…say, Toronto and its surrounding communities.  Survey every single adult out of university and nail down a percentage of them using this information that they had to sweat through in high school.  I can’t imagine how low that number would be, but hell, let’s be generous and say it’s 20%, just for shits and giggles.

Why are we punishing our youth to learn this when a generous one out of five will actually use it?  Instead, in these days of financial crises and mortgage failures, why not teach these kids how to balance a home budget?  Or how to look at a 765 g box of cereal at one price point, and a 400 g box of the same cereal at a different price point and be able to figure out which one is the better deal?

How about giving these kids some damn life skills?

And then there’s my second point.  My daughter’s boring readings.  The fact that virtually anything is more exciting than the homework assignments she’s getting.  And remember, this is at a post-secondary institution that’s costing better than $20K a year.  This, by the way, is in the same world where someone out there can create a video game that will suck my kid’s attention for hours at a time.

On that same track, though, I can also remember a few years back where, in the course of three days, I was helping my daughter with two different high school assignments.  One was on our Canadian government at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.  We went over the stuff and I happened to be driving with her later that day and quizzed her on the election signs we passed.  Yes, we were in the throes of an election at the time.  And you know what?

She didn’t know.

At no point did the teacher…teaching children about municipal government…ever mention that there was currently an election happening.

The other assignment my daughter worked on was in geography and had to do with the various cloud formations.  There were lovely drawings in her texts and in handouts.  I took her to the patio and pointed at a cloud and asked her what kind of formation it was.  Again, she flabbergasted me by not knowing…because she’d only ever been shown drawings.  The teacher never took them to a damn window in the classroom.

My son said to me a couple of weeks back (during the trinomials), “You know, it’s pretty sad that you can teach this stuff better than my math teacher.”  He wasn’t being sarcastic.  He sounded almost saddened.  You could almost hear his worldview shifting.

Bear in mind, my kids’ high school is actually a good one.  They do a lot of good things, and they have some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen and I don’t want to paint all of them with the same brush.  There definitely are some brave souls–those teachers who are teaching for the right reasons–who push the envelope and challenge the norms.  But they’re so damn few and far between…

So my point of all this is, here we are staring down the barrel of 2012 and we’re still teaching kids like it’s 1950.  Oh sure, now we have smartboards and computers and the handouts don’t get you high when you sniff them like the old photostats did, but overall, really, what’s changed in over half a frigging century?

We teach stuff they’ll likely never use.

We don’t teach them stuff they need to survive the first few years post high school.

We don’t equate in-class learnings to real-world situations.

And, we seem intent on making the education they do get as boring and unengaging as humanly possible.