Get Off My Porch, Chum

Friday night, 7:45 p.m. There’s an unexpected knock at the door, who could it be? Is it my mom coming to visit her grandson? My sister coming to visit her nephew? A neighbour coming to borrow a cup of sugar that is needed for some mid-evening meringues?

I open the door. It’s some dude I don’t recognize, wearing a plastic ID badge and holding a clipboard. I reluctantly crack the screen door. He launches into a rapid-fire speech that’s reminiscent of an old Micro Machines commercial.

“Hi good evening I’m here with National and we’re working on the street this week putting in all the new high-efficiency water heaters that everyone is getting installed and we’re just checking the water heaters in the area and you rent your water heater right? well I just need to come down to your basement just for a minute to see if it has the energy star symbol on it and if it doesn’t you could be eligible for an upgrade and it will only take a second so should I leave my boots on or take them off?”

The guy has practically wedged himself inside the screen door at this point. No buddy, you aren’t coming in; you aren’t taking your boots off. The only thing you’re gonna be doing with those boots of yours is marching yourself back down to the street with them.

The guy was still yapping as I closed and locked the door, like a pull-string kids’ toy, the kind that won’t stop its pre-recorded spiel until the plastic loop comes to rest in Big Bird’s butt again. He was with National Home Services, the company that launched a thousand complaints to the Better Business Bureau and even helped inspired the province to change its laws around door-to-door selling.

This is (at least) the third time since October that I’ve had pushy hot water tank salespeople darken my doorstep. The first was in October when I was out of town. That particular character insinuated to my wife that he was with the company we rent from (Reliance Home Comfort) and was there to check on the unit. It wasn’t until he was in our basement and taking out paperwork for our prospective new tank (complete with a 10 or 15-year contract with usurious terms) that he revealed he was with another company.

The second time was on a frigid night in December. The young woman got snippy in a hurry when I told her I wasn’t interested. Well sorry lady, but let’s try to remember that you came here to bother me. I don’t know what combination of poor life choices and bad luck leads a person to selling water tank rentals door-to-door in -20 Celsius weather, but you have my sympathy for whatever that’s worth.

I don’t get all the interest around hot water tanks. We pay $49 quarterly to rent ours. I think about it as much as I do questions such as, “which modern actor would make the best Marshal Dillon in a Gunsmoke reboot?” But we’ve had more than unwelcome in-person solicitors to worry about vis-a-vis our hot water situation.

I’m talking to you Reliance Home Comfort. I realize we have a customer-service provider relationship, and you are within your rights to call us, even if it is for a dubious product such as a “hot water heater protection plan.” However, I tend to think that it is a step too far for you to call my wife on a weekday, during business hours at her work phone number that we have never before provided to you, in order to discuss said plan. Yes, I know it is the information age and all, and I’m heartened that someone at your company knows how to use Google. But isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

After all Reliance Home Comfort, how would you like it if I started cold calling your call centre reps trying to pitch them some value-added services while they are on duty? My three-day training course, How Not to be a Jackass: Master Class, is an especially good value at just $3,995.99 and would be extremely beneficial for your employees. Participants get a signed certificate of completion at the end, and a miniature cat o’ nine tails that they can use to swat themselves with if they catch themselves engaging in any jackassery in the future. Not ready to make a four-thousand dollar commitment? Well I also have an audio-book version available, and I believe your company will qualify for a bulk order discount!

Its not just hot water causing us grief, water of all temperatures has been a problem. In spring 2013, our house got a phone call about a “water quality survey.” Municipal water services has been a big issue locally the past few years, and the previous fall I had answered a public opinion survey conducted by Ipsos-Reid, if memory serves. Maybe this was a follow-up. “Alright, I’ll take the questionnaire,” I say to the caller on the phone. Oh, no, no, no—he has a man in the area who will come over to do the survey in person.

Seemed a little odd to me, but I knew that field researchers did in-person stuff sometimes. The guy asks if my wife well be there, because they don’t send their employees out if only males are on the premises because “one of our female reps was attacked last year.” He says this to me suspiciously, as though he thinks the odds are pretty good that I might be a violent psychopath or have a sex dungeon in my basement. I should’ve told him to stuff his head up his ass right then.

A few minutes later a kid shows up with a little suitcase full of gear and I know what kind of dog and pony show I am in for right away, but there seems no way out except to let things run their course. His company is working “with” the city and he’s not there to sell us anything. Yeah right. He goes through his interminable demo with his strips of acetate paper and his water tester, and eventually we get to the pitch.

Sorry mate, but I woke up this morning with certain expectations for the day: I’m going to go to work; I’m going to walk the dog; I might change a diaper or two; I’ll probably cook dinner; maybe I’ll write for a bit once my son goes to bed. You know what wasn’t on that list? Buying a $7,500 water filtration system. I don’t care that I (and my heirs) have the option of paying it off in $34.95 installments from now until the heat-death of the universe.

Say what you will about the wisdom Government of Ontario, but ever since the Walkerton tragedy it has adopted some of the most stringent water quality standards of anywhere in the world. As such, I’m pretty confident that the water flowing from my tap is safe to drink and wash with, occasional chlorine overtones notwithstanding. So my friend, I’m not going to react as if I have been drinking deuterium all this time on account of it having one or two parts per million more copper than you suggest it should.

I wish now that I could remember the name of the company the kid (who in fairness was a pleasant enough person himself) was with. I think they were based in Ottawa. Their approach was predicated on the same sort of disingenuousness and hard sell tactics made famous by Green Life Water Filtration, though I think it was a different outfit this time.

Anyways, to direct salespeople of the world visiting or calling this neighbourhood, here is what I have to say. I realize that you are just trying to eke out a living in a still-lagging economy. I realize that not all of you are deceitful or unethical. I understand that a small fraction of the houses you call on may be a good fit for what you have to offer. Maybe there are a few people who don’t mind paying $4,500 over a 15-year rental agreement period for a hot water heater that would cost $1,000 to buy outright; perhaps there are a couple of affluent households who want a Cadillac filtration system for their drinking water.

But this is an area with mixed-demographics. There are young first-time owners who might be baffled into thinking they are getting a good deal by all the fast-talking. There are seniors who grew up in a more trusting and credulous time. There are widows and widowers, some of whom likely relied on their late spouses to worry about hot water tanks and dealing with the utility company. These are people vulnerable to being scammed. I’m sure that most don’t need and that many can ill-afford the things you are hawking. That’s why there will be one more letter of complaint reaching the BBB about National Home Services soon, this one with my signature affixed, and there will be similar missives issued for any other high-pressure companies that come to this door henceforth.

Still with all that said, I’m not 100 per cent opposed to door-to-door sales. I don’t have a “No Soliciting” sign or my “Labrador Retriever On Duty” notice posted in the window. If you are a Boy Scout selling apples, or a Girl Guide peddling cookies then knock away. If you are a volunteer canvassing the neighbourhood to raise funds for some worthy cause, then let me get my chequebook.

But, if the paragraph above doesn’t describe what you have to sell, then when your feet bring you within sight of my porch, you’d best just keep on walking pal.


A Painful Case: The Sad Story of Dr. V

We think we know better, but a part in each of us wants to see the world unfold with the simple morality of a fairy tale. We’re at ease when situations and people can be divided into convenient dichotomies: good and evil; heroes and villains; victims and perpetrators. We acknowledge all the gray shadings but reach for the old rubric anyways, the dualisms, the choosing of sides.

Once upon a time, the story of Essay Anne Vanderbilt (aka Dr. V) seemed like a simple one. She was the mysterious founder of Yar Golf and the inventor of the Zero MOI Putter. Her putter was the subject of a breathless infomercial, but it had also attracted high praise from the rarefied (and one would presume knowledgeable) world of professional golf. For writer Caleb Hannan, the assignment was straightforward: find this inventor, talk to her and those who endorsed her, and find out if the club legitimately worked.

When Hannan first contacted Vanderbilt, she emphasized that she wanted him to focus on, “the science and not the scientist.” However, her grandiose pronouncements and penchant for self-promotion made that a difficult proposition. Vanderbilt said that she had helped build the stealth bomber, and was on the team that invented Bluetooth technology. She claimed to have come up with the idea for the Zero MOI Putter while working at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.

Along the way, those claims and credentials would be irrefutably debunked. In his finished piece, Hannan also revealed that Dr. V was formerly a man, and in a sad coda, that she had committed suicide before the story was completed.

When the long-form story was first published on Grantland on Wednesday January 15, 2014, it received plaudits at first and a storm of criticism shortly thereafter. The site was accused of everything from having poor judgement, to being exploitative, to being transphobic. Hannan was redressed for “outing” Vanderbilt against her will in his piece and to one of her company’s investors, with some commentators suggesting he bore some responsibility for her suicide He also received numerous death threats.

Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons delivered a mea culpa on January 22, offering apologies to those offended, defending Hannan, pouring some ashes over his head and those of the other editorial staffers, and generally promising to be more sensitive next time out. The site also posted an op-ed from fellow ESPN writer Christina Karhl, detailing problems with the writing from the standpoint of the transgendered community.

So now, here is the inflection point where you are supposed to choose. Whom do you side with? How do you apportion the blame? Vanderbilt was the one who fabricated a gossamer persona and back-story and invited the scrutiny that led to its disintegration; Hannan was the one who took a personal detail and made more hay out of it than he needed to. Vanderbilt clearly didn’t want her transgendered status to become public knowledge; when Hannan was faced with a subject revealed to be mostly artifice, the question then became, what is the truth? And while Vanderbilt’s past as a man comprised part of that truth, was it fair or just to reveal it?

While Hannan’s piece itself has some issues, it’s clear that he didn’t set out to be a Kitty Kelley style takedown artist. At the beginning, he seems like Fox Mulder of X-Files: wanting to believe. He is initially credulous about Vanderbilt’s fantastic claims. And when the discrepancies begin to appear he gives her opportunity to explain them. But when he finds out that Vanderbilt lived as Stephen Kroll for the first 50 years of her life, you can see the gears turning in his mind—here’s the hook: Dr. V was born a man. Because otherwise we’ve seen this story before—journalist meets eccentric fabulist, eccentric fabulist is undone by their lies and contradictions, end scene. The transgender angle kicks the “not what they appeared to be” storyline into overdrive.

Though I understand Hannan’s choices, I sympathize with Vanderbilt. I read Hannan’s piece after reading the post-mortems from Simmons and Karhl first and the advance knowledge of how everything ended puts a suffocating layer of dread over the article.

When I was a kid, our local community college used to hold bridge building competitions for elementary school students. Participants constructed miniature trestles out of packages of balsa wood and glue, and then they were tested beneath a pneumatic press to see how much weight they could hold before they crumpled and failed. And that is what reading Vanderbilt’s increasingly desperate and inchoate responses to Hannan reminded me of, the gradual buildup of this inexorable and crushing weight, the glue cracking, the wood splintering.

Clearly, it was a mistake for such a fragile person to weave together such an outlandish fantasy and then bring it into the public square, the world of golf pros, infomercials, and curious journalists, when one tug at any single thread could cause the whole tapestry to unravel. But as Hannan himself wondered, were her sins very great? In a country that still regards P.T. Barnum as more folk-hero than charlatan, and where overheated infomercial claims are de rigeur, was Dr. V guilty of anything more than simple puffery?

The more I seek answers, the more I find only dissonance. I understand the logic that led Vanderbilt to create her elaborate “Dr. V” mythos; I understand why Hannan destroyed it. The tragedy is that the whole thing wasn’t really needed. The “mad scientist” trope has its appeal, but just as irresistible is the idea of the “unlikely prodigy:” the savant who emerges from their garage or basement with a new product, computer program, or work of art that blows everyone away. A golf putter doesn’t need a comic book hero’s origin story.

In the end, the case of Dr. V is a tale with no winners, only losers. An inventor dead before her time, a writer burdened with a measure of infamy to live down, victims of happenstance as much as anything, two satellites drawn into each other’s orbit and set on a collision course.

The pain comes from knowing that so much of it was avoidable. Somewhere, in some happier alternate reality, there was a great article to be had. An inventor with limited knowledge of golf and club fabrication creates a revolutionarily different style of putter that attracts praise from pro golf’s upper echelons. How did she do it? What inspired her? Did it actually work as advertised? Those would have been the only questions Hannan would have needed. And the answers would have been compelling enough.

Tiger Mom Returns to Troll America

It’s like the answer to a question nobody asked: which “cultural groups” are best positioned to thrive in modern society? Well, if you live in America, the answer is apparently Chinese, Jews, Nigerians, Lebanese, Indians, Iranians, Cuban exiles, and Mormons—at least according to notorious “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfield. Do you not count yourself among the ranks of the chosen? Well, don’t despair; someone has to rear the next generation of fry cooks.

Chua and Rubenfield make the case for their elite eight in a new book entitled The Triple Package that is currently being greeted with the sort of critical reaction that a new and revised printing of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf might receive. According to early reviews, the husband and wife co-authors combine the worst instincts of Malcolm Gladwell, with specious reasoning, pseudoscience, and anecdotal arguments. The net result is a book that emerges with the unpleasant whiff of eugenics wafting up from its pages.

Just what are the elements that compose the “Triple Package” that the earlier mentioned groups supposedly possess? Well, the magic ingredients are supposedly:

• A superiority complex

• Insecurity (aka an inferiority complex—dig the seeming paradox!)

• Impulse control

(Were you brushing Cheeto crumbs off your shirt when you read that last bullet? If so, you can forget about ever achieving anything meaningful in your life.)

You might remember Chua from 2011 when an earlier book of hers, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, became a sensation. In it, Chua criticized the lax methods of “western” parenting and touted her own harsh and uncompromising approach. Some of the highlights (lowlights?) included explanations of why she wouldn’t let her daughters participate in sleepovers and an anecdote about a time when she threatened to give away a cherished toy if her daughter couldn’t learn to play a piano piece to her satisfaction.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother turned Chua into a lightning rod, attracting praise from some quarters and vituperation from others. Along the way, the book also moved a ton of copies, so it seems here that Chua, Rubenfield and publisher Penguin are hoping that lightning will strike twice.

Hopefully, they won’t be so lucky. Whatever one thinks of Chua as a person, the first-person viewpoint she presented in Battle Hymn was undeniably interesting. She portrayed herself in a way that rendered herself unlikeable to many readers, and while that was in many ways a knowing choice, it was still a bold one. And while her overarching conclusions were dubious, the contentions she raised were worth discussing, and the debate she provoked was worth having.

In contrast, The Triple Package is lazy fear-mongering garbage that belongs on the same shelf as Glenn Beck’s dystopian novels. It’s at once calculated to offend, while at the same time it contorts itself to ensure that its carefully selected list of superior groups includes representatives from almost all races and major religions. Relying on generalizations and cherry-picking, the three legs of The Triple Package tripod are monolithic thinking at its finest and most useless, and they end up supporting nothing more than a fairy tale—and if history is to be our guide, a dangerous one at that.

At this point though, I have to believe that Chua and Rubenfield are just deliberately trolling their fellow Americans. I can laugh at their antics, but many others won’t. The more serious debunking is already underway; Maureen Callahan at The New York Post has done a good initial takedown and I’m sure there will be many more to come.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I will take my leave. I have an unhappy toddler who has a date with the piano to practice his melodic minor scales, whether he likes it or not.



Duck Disaster

I don’t watch much television these days unless the letters N, F, and L are prominently involved, but even I am dimly aware that Duck Dynasty is a huge phenomenon. A show has to have made the big time to take up a good portion of a display wall at Calendar Club all by itself during the Christmas retail rush.

Of course, as many know, controversy overtook Duck Dynasty this week. Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Robertson family of duck-call manufacturers, was quoted in GQ magazine making remarks that were perceived to be disparaging towards gays. The A&E channel, which produces and airs the series, quickly condemned the elder Robertson’s remarks and they announced that he would be taking an extended hiatus from appearing on the show.

If you have enough people on Facebook or Twitter, you’re bound to see an outcry about this decision start appearing in your newsfeeds. The accusations about thought police, political correctness overreach, oversensitivity, and the spinelessness of A&E will fly. It will be argued that the Robertsons have never made any bones about their Christian worldview; the talk about what is and isn’t sinful is just an extension of that. Phil should have the right to say what he believes.

And you know, they’re absolutely correct. Phil Robertson should be free to talk about his faith, and his personal beliefs—however unpopular or unappealing they may be to some—if he chooses to do so.

Except he kind of was able to do that, now wasn’t he? The outcry isn’t over him being denied the opportunity to express his views, rather it’s over the punitive measures he now faces for doing so. But that being the case, it needs to be remembered that there is a difference between the meanings of censor and censure. Freedom of speech doesn’t always mean free from consequences.

Phil Robertson has a right to free expression, but the companies he associates with also have the right of free enterprise. Duck Dynasty isn’t the public square; it’s a corporately produced TV program.  Insofar as the show is concerned, Phil Robertson is an employee of A&E. And you can wager that he has a contract that stipulates that he not engage in behaviour or make comments that could prove injurious to the program, cause it to lose sponsors and so forth.  A&E foots the bill; they get to make the calls. Furthermore, Phil isn’t being denied free speech because he has plenty of other avenues available to him. He could express himself through self-produced webisodes or he could crowd-fund his own series if he convinced enough of his pissed-off fans to pony up some cash for it.  

From a crisis management standpoint, A&E has handled this situation well. They demonstrated moral leadership by being decisive about removing a key figure from one of their top properties, and they were unequivocal about condemning statements that were out of step with their corporate values. Which is wise, because shows come and go in popularity, and today’s first family of reality TV can be tomorrow’s Trivial Pursuit answer—to wit: the Osbourne family. But people remember how media outlets comport themselves.

A&E’s swift response also earned some quick praise from GLAAD, which quickly became part of the story. And by phrasing the elder Robertson’s departure as “a hiatus”, they left the door open for his eventual return.

Which is probably what will happen. I don’t know if Phil Robertson will find his way on to the “contrition and apology” circuit, but I imagine that even if he doesn’t he’ll be back on Duck Dynasty after some time has passed. And I’m sure most fans of the show will welcome him back, just as most will keep watching while he is gone.

However, any show with an audience as big as Duck Dynasty’s almost certainly counts some gay, lesbian, and bisexuals amongst its viewers. Not to mention liberal-minded fans and even Christians who would prefer to see their faith served up with a more tolerant outlook. Will they remain onboard as watchers? It’s likely that many will, despite some reservations.

Still, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is a breakpoint for the program. It will keep going, but for many its charm won’t ever be quite the same. It’s even possible there will be a few less Robertson clan calendars, bobbleheads, and books on sale in mall end-caps come next Christmas-time.

Maria Kang, You Are Not The Cosmos

All around us, they are suffering. Put-down, mocked, disregarded, dismissed as vain and shallow. Society is oblivious to their pain and blind to their achievements. Look into the mirror and stare hard; it’s likely that you too are guilty of marginalizing them. Who are these invisible victims? Look gym-ward angel, this subjugated group is none other than those who dare to be highly fit.

The Mandela-like figure who has dared to speak truth to power about the unjust treatment of those with six-pack abs is one Maria Kang. In a mind-bogglingly jejune, self-absorbed, and obtusely-reasoned opinion piece she wrote for, entitled Fit Pride Isn’t Hate Speech, Kang whines that body acceptance campaigns have turned fit women (and one would suppose fit men too) into a persecuted minority.

Jesus H Christ, what is this, Bizarro World?

The fulcrum of Kang’s argument is that in November her Facebook account was suspended after she posted a picture of herself in a sports bra and short-shorts with her three young children. The title emblazoned across the picture was, “What’s Your Excuse?” The reason Facebook (supposedly) gave for locking her account (since restored) was that the picture (and a later blog-like rant she posted) constituted “hate speech.”

Were Kang’s postings “hate speech?” No. Were they examples of the self-aggrandizing narcissism that so frequently makes perusing social media a tedious exercise? Yes. Should they have been taken down and her account suspended? Probably not.

If Kang had restricted her complaining to her right to free expression being violated, maybe she would have a valid case. It would still be difficult to sympathize much with her, but her point would be a valid one.

But give Kang an inch and she’ll gladly take things 10 miles too far. With egotistical grandeur, Kang postulates that the wrong done to her was much bigger than one of Facebook’s moderators coming down with a case of twitchy fingers. No, the blowback from her cheesecake pic and taunting tagline was emblematic of something far bigger: the sinister “fat acceptance” movement and its mission to attack and ostracize people who are “fit and proud.”

And then we get the list of grievances: A society where being fat is the new normal. Our, “everybody’s a winner” mentality that diminishes high-achievers and acceptance campaigns that posit that “liking yourself” is more important than being healthy. Haters who would rather called Kang a narcissist, poor parent, beneficiary of privileged circumstances, or out-to-lunch, instead of buckling down and getting their own slovenly asses on a treadmill. The notion that now the only “real woman” is an overweight one. Those same “real women” having the temerity to celebrate their “curves” (i.e. rolls of fat) by prancing around or posing for half-naked photos. You have to admire the guile of someone who can complain about other people having the gall to appear “half-naked” after posting a three-quarters naked photo herself. Must be some sort of offshoot of Muphry’s Law.

At times, Kang’s writing almost sounds like a put-on and it becomes tempting to check the byline to see if the article was syndicated from The Onion. She leads one paragraph by writing, “A new minority of healthy people are stepping out of the shadows…” making it sound like the people in question had to escape from the buffet line at Golden Corral via the Underground Railroad. Later she muses that the “fat pride” movement may have created such a toxic environment that a countering “fit pride” faction might need to arise in response. The only thing missing is an outspoken general who could lead the toned legions into battle…

A few pertinent facts about Kang: she bills herself as a business owner who owns two senior care facilities. She is also a freelance writer and the operator of a non-profit fitness business—and it bears remembering, “non-profit” doesn’t mean the same thing as “non-wage paying.” She has done some dabbling in modelling and fitness competitions and she has never met a flashbulb she didn’t like. Her website has a laundry list of TV and radio appearances. The criticism of her, “What’s Your Excuse?” campaign has given her a new casus belli for a full-on media press, and she has milked that for several months now, with the Time missive being her latest salvo.

Hmm, just a thought here, but if you were the owner of a fitness-oriented business, a participant in fitness contests, a writer about fitness topics, and you worked tirelessly to get yourself on TV to talk about fitness, wouldn’t you say that fitness was kind of a big deal to you? Maybe more so than for other people? And that if parlaying your own levels of fitness was responsible for a significant part of your income, that you might take it fairly seriously? And, in addition to the reasons above, that if you had the flexibility to devote ample time to working out that it might be a little easier to maintain a high level of fitness? Just some thoughts, and if you happen to be reading Doctor Phil, know that I will be happy to fill in for you anytime. Call me!

Kang draws her painful essay about the faux-oppression of fit women to a close by aiming for the rafters, positioning herself as a would-be Rosa Parks for the Cross-Fit crowd, and even deigning to rewrite the books on who “real women” are and are not:

“So, let’s set the record straight. There’s the normal, overweight woman. There’s the photoshopped fake woman — and then there’s an array of real women.

I, Maria Kang, am a real woman — and I’ve stood up. It’s not hate speech to be fit and proud.”

Well Maria Kang, you may be a “real woman” but you’re just one among many. Many “real women” don’t own their own businesses and have the flexibility to work out whenever they get the urge. Many “real women” have to spend all day working in offices or retail stores and all night trying to keep the wheels from flying off their households. Many “real women” spend their free time at second jobs or taking educational courses to try to stay one-step ahead of an economic system that seems hell-bent on crushing the middle class at every turn. Many real women don’t compete as fitness models or put a premium on looking like one, and of the ones that do, most of them go about it without grubbing for publicity six ways from Sunday, relentlessly glomming for attention, and without putting up knowingly belligerent material on Facebook.

If I can borrow the words of the great Molly Ivins once again, you are not the cosmos Maria Kang. “Fit people” are getting on just fine in this society of ours; I think we can safely rebuff your application to be our Philosopher Queen. The trend you should be worrying about isn’t the acceptance of fat persons or the persecution of fit ones; it’s that in our selfie culture so many people are falling into wells of bottomless solipsism and self-delusion where the need to empathize and relate to others is never felt. Where the only sound that matters is your own self-congratulatory voice echoing off the walls.