Learning is Apparently Something of which I am Capable

A few months ago, I reached out to a woman, with no expectations. She’s beautiful, smart, driven as hell. I was surprised to find her interested. Things move quickly, so quickly. And then they stalled. I tried everything I could think of, but alas, I could make no headway. She would let me no closer, but didn’t push me away either. I still don’t know what put the brakes on things, but I discovered that I have in fact learned something.

I persisted for three weeks after my instincts told me I was on an escape trajectory. That may sound particularly idiotic, but bear with me. Sometimes, I jump to conclusions. I give up on things that just need a little time. So, in spite of my wounded pride, I held on. Did I do a good job of holding on? I suspect not. I suspect I just slowed things a bit. Furled the topsails on a ship passing in the night.

I’m a deeply flawed man. But I think I might just have found the right tools to buff down some unnecessarily sharp edges. Maybe, just maybe, next time I will get it another step closer to right. That’s all I can really ask of myself.

Stay frosty.

Rant, Work

Don’t Call me [first name]

This rant only applies in professional contexts.

Disclosure: This post is adapted from a complaint I sent to the LinkedIn Help Centre.

I get a lot of unsolicited email from this site. I don’t mind; I am not paying for this potentially valuable service. It is their right to do so, and it is my right to ignore or read such email as I see fit. I don’t even mind that most of these emails are basically interest-generation mad-libs. “Dear [name], we are hosting a conference on [job skill in your profile] and think that you would be a valuable contributor” etc, etc. Sometimes these emails are horribly mismatched to my competencies: inviting a combat veteran armour officer to apply for a job as the Operations Manager for Hippies Without Borders* will probably result in some very interesting HR meetings. Computers will do exactly what you program to do. I am willing to be forgiving of some ironic unforeseen consequences.

What I will not calmly let pass is the degeneration of professional standards of civility. My first name is listed on my profile for the purposes of differentiating me from other Mr. [Canuck Pirate]s It is not an invitation to communicate with me casually. “Dear [first name], ” is not an appropriate way to introduce you or your product to me.

I get that this is social media. But the rules of conventional media do not get immediately discarded just because a keyboard is involved. Why do news anchors wear semi-formal attire? To contextually communicate that they are serious people who can be taken seriously. It’s a recognized comedic trope to have the news delivered by inappropriately casual people (think “The Great White North” with Doug and Bob McKenzie). If I were to show up at a job interview at an investment firm in a hoodie and jeans, how many would think “here is a man I can trust with millions of shareholder dollars”? If I, at the same interview, answered the first question with “Well, sure Gina. I am totally stoked to play around with rich dudes’ cash!”, how long do you think that interview would last? Context matters in communication. If I am to believe that LinkedIn is a serious platform for serious companies who can offer me real professional opportunities, these details matter. Otherwise, it is just Business Facebook.

If you are sending me unsolicited invitations to professional events, we are not friends. We are potential colleagues. I might end up being your subordinate. You may end up being mine. We should begin with a foundation of respect. And from a practical perspective, it is not that hard! You are already using a form letter. Instead of programming it to say “Dear [first name]”, you could program “Dear Mr/Ms [last name]”. If you are concerned that using a gender binary may be offensive to your prospective audience, you could use the entirely neutral “Good day,[line break, remainder of message]” thus avoiding the entire issue.

Regardless of the solution, civility in opening communications sets the tone. It is a simple gesture that speaks to whether or not this dialogue is work-related or social. If you want me to dismiss you as being unconscionably tone-deaf and just more chaff for the dustbin, then carry on. Otherwise, don’t call me [first name].

*I refer to all NGOs as “Hippies Without Borders”. Some do fine work, others not so much. I use this mild pejorative simply to illustrate what a mismatch I would be for any charitable organization. This is not true of all combat veterans, just this one in particular.


Springtime in the Low Countries

It is spring now, and I hate it. The pollinating trees are making breathing a chore. The sun rises at an ungodly early hour. The birds are chirping, and nature is renewing itself. Curse them all!

I kid. It’s actually reasonably nice. I am, however, trapped in an office. I could not go to a friend’s wedding, nor can I truly enjoy the superior weather. Instead, I am neck-deep in budgets, planning cycles, etc. Ah well. Such is the life of someone with as narrow a skillset as I.

This week, I have gotten to enjoy a few unexpected pleasures. My best friend here, who is at least as nerdy as I, is an avid Kickstarter backer. We ended up having a wizardry-themed weekend. He has a copy of the new Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, and beta access to the Steam game Fictorum.

The Dresden Files game is a board game with cards. If you’ve ever played the brilliant Space Truckers board game, it’s kind of the same. Basically, you have a deck of cards related to a character from the Dresden Files (such as Harry himself), and the “book” is 12 cards, consisting of Cases, Enemies, Obstacles, and Advantages. The gameplay is pretty simple. You and your friends spend from a limited pool of Fate Points to use your cards. Your cards can add clues to cases, hits to enemies, or otherwise affect the cards in play. If you add enough clues to a case, it is solved. If you add enough hits (damage points) to an enemy, it dies. When you meet certain conditions (out of cards, out of Fate Points), you go to the “showdown”; a final chance to solve cases and kill enemies. When all is said and done, if you have solved more cases than there are enemies remaining, you win! It’s fairly quick, and very satisfying. Particularly if you are a fan of the Dresden Files- it is full of appropriate quotations. (Carlos is my current fav: “It hurts being this good!”)


Electronic Nerdery: Fictorum is built on the Unreal engine. You are the last Fictorum- a kind of spell-shaping wizard. You live in a post apocalyptic world where everyone lives on mountaintops above this horrible corrupting fog. You survive  being executed by the nefarious Inquisition, and are out for revenge. Standard roguelike structure. The writing is truly abysmal. The plot is inconsistent- most of the time you have no choice but to burninate the countryside. But then, because reasons, you can be super-merciful to random peasants. Odd, to say the least. But irrelevant!


You can have 4 spells hotkeyed at once. Each spell has a standard cast mode, take for instance fireball. Left click? A fireball goes where you point. But if you right-click, the game shows its genius. Each spell has 3 rune slots, and runes all do different things. Some runes make the spell faster. Some make it penetrate. Some make it explode for area damage. Some make multiple projectiles.

But wait. There’s more!

Right clicking puts you in slow motion, while you “shape” the spell. The triangle showing which runes you have equipped appears. Using the mouse, you can choose how much energy you want to devote to each effect. So, imagine we have fireball equipped with the High Velocity, Multi-shot, and High explosive runes. I can make a single high-speed shot. I can make a single shot that explodes. I can make multiple shots. I can make any permutation or combination of the above, and at varying intensities! Some of the effects can be hilariously overpowered. I will not specify exactly which, because I don’t want the developers “fixing” it, but suffice to say I became a one man apocalypse due to a particularly amusing combination of runes. My friend and I nearly peed ourselves laughing when I obliterated an advancing horde of freaks with a single spell.


Anyway, suffice to say it was satisfyingly nerdy a weekend. Enjoy spring, you tree-hugging heathens.

Food and Drink, Ramblings

The Virtues and Dangers of Dining Alone

So, anyone who has met me will notice that I have a bit of a strange habit. I almost never invite people out to do stuff. The closest I come to it is letting people know I am doing something, and then saying they are welcome to participate. Hell, on the odd occasions that I am in a relationship, I basically do the same thing with the lady.

It’s because I’m horrible (hat tip to my brother for this endlessly useful phrase).

I kid. It isn’t because I am horrible. I am horrible, but that’s not the root cause of this behaviour. It’s because I like going out. I discovered fairly early in my independent life that  I really like going out. Coffee, shisha, bars, restaurants. Whatever. I like the stimulation of being out in public. I get to see and hear and smell and taste stuff. Endless variation and novelty. But you know what kills that joy? Compromise. Some day I will write a post about how I am basically an anti-compromise extremist (this administration will not negotiate with terrorists!), but my point is that I want to go out. What I do not want is to spool up a NATO Joint Operational Planning Group to develop 28-member state consensus to determine when and where I will get to enjoy human civilization and under what circumstances I must tolerate people I don’t like.

So I go out. The plan is mine. The destination is mine. The timing, the location, the goals. All mine. I want sushi? Sushi. Don’t care that the California maki contains dolphins. Those rapey bastards are probably delicious anyway. I don’t have to sit at a table for six and apologize for the third time to the waiter trying to keep the manager happy, because someone’s significant other is a Pashtun Tribal, and really only sees time as a measure of daylight. And because I am Canadian, I have to live with the cultural norm that I cannot (or at the very least should not) notify someone that doing their makeup cannot possibly justify being 3 hours late to a picnic in the park, unless that park is the Rose Garden at the White House, in which case their basic ass would embarrass me with their silly stick on nails in any case.

Regardless, I go out alone a lot. Which gets me stared at a fair bit, yes. It also means that my “day game”, as the wags put it, is non-existent. Seriously, nothing comes off as more desperate than being alone on a Friday afternoon and trying to charm a group of ladies. So I get to read a lot. I watch people. I get to practice silence. It’s pretty nice sometimes, too. Serving staff tend to be attentive. Once I get over the irritation of the skeptical toned questions, I also make new friends.

But there are downsides too. For example, I frequently forget how to behave in a group. People join me, and I sort of blank on how to keep the conversation going. Or I forget that it is a bit rude to abruptly pay your bill and wander away. Solitude can be habit-forming, and those habits tend to reinforce solitude. I have to exert conscious effort to make sure that I am wearing reasonably presentable clothes. Aside, I have apparently been failing at that lately. A friend told me I have two outfits- jeans and a specific blue hoodie, or khakis and a checked shirt. I forget for months at a time to get haircuts. I don’t notice that a cut from my evening shave is bleeding and I now look like an extra from the dance fight in West Side Story. Or I don’t shave at all, and people try to give me money for bus fare.

In the end, I am not suddenly going to become a man fixated on social circle. My job gives me an odd schedule, and my personality makes me abrasive. I suspect healthy balance is something to be aspired to, but I don’t do healthy or balanced.

Table for one, please.


I can’t seem to get the roller coaster to slow down, frankly. A lot has been going on, and I haven’t been terribly proud of myself of late. I am doing the job, but could be doing it better. I am living the life, but I could be doing it better. I have put on weight. Friends have died, and lovers come and gone.

I think I am starting to be ready to go home.

Don’t get me wrong. I still like Europe, and the weather is getting better. This time of year is particularly stressful at work as the fiscal year comes to a close. And by the way, NATO is super active right now which means more stress for me. But I am tired again. I do what I can, and I have started cooking again in the hopes that a better diet will lead to better mood. This week, I have slowly been cleaning my admittedly slovenly abode. But I am short on passion right now. I wake up, and go about my early day in a kind of haze. I need to find something that I look forward to each day, that energizes me. No idea what that will be, but I think I might try writing poetry again even though I don’t feel like the old inspiration has returned. I got saddlebags for my bike so it is more convenient to ride it to work.

I think part of it also involves the questions I get seemingly more often these days. Don’t I want to be happy? Don’t I want a partner? Well-meaning questions, but they always hit the brick wall of the kind of person I have become over the years. I don’t really feel connected to people all that strongly. I have excellent friends here, but few in number. I don’t socialize like I did at home, for myriad reasons. Part of it is being in a small town- I remember feeling like this sometimes in Fredericton too.

But I think a big part of it is finding out who I am now that I have to accept an old motivation isn’t valid anymore. Until I was about 28, I knew that my fundamental purpose was centred around combat. I trained for it. Then I did it. Then I taught other people to do it. The truth now is that combat isn’t part of my life anymore. Barring some kind of major conflagration, I am out of that world. Now I deal with regulations, and diplomatic codes. Sure, I still lay hands on rifles occasionally, and teach basic skills, but it’s all very academic. This warhorse is in the training yard now, the days of the charge but a memory.

Nostalgia is dangerous, of course. I carry a lot of scars from my time in the field. I didn’t keep a journal in Afghanistan because I knew I wouldn’t want crystal-clear memories of what it was like. Even the comforting certainty led to a lot of anger (“dammit, why doesn’t [insert person here] get it?!”). But identity is inextricably linked to the stories we tell ourselves. I don’t know that my story is compelling anymore.

So I need to write a new chapter. We will see if I have it in me to pick up the pen.


The Strange Paths that Words Take You

I was writing a letter to my German teacher today, apologizing for my absence. I used the word “Entschuldigung”. Roughly translated, it means “pardon me” or “excuse me” or more simply, “sorry”.

And today is certainly a day when I am sorry.

But there’s a more precise, if awkward, translation- at least according to my father; “please remove the responsibility for error from me”. A pardon in the criminal sense. Having been raised Catholic, I could not help then thinking of Jesus’ words in Gethsemane: “let this cup pass away from me”.

Yes, there it is. That’s how I feel.

One of my soldiers killed himself today. Just over five years after I brought every one of my troops home safe from Afghanistan, one of them is dead. And I think about that, and realize that I have never (that I can recall) used the expression “safe and sound” to describe how we came home. Maybe, unconsciously, I realized that some (probably all) of us are now unsound. Cracked iron, just needing the right pressure to shiver to pieces. Pottery, almost ready to fall to shards.

My mind drifts back to the Old Testament. Evidence of a misspent youth, I suppose. Job, beset by Satan and left to suffer by God as a test, is scraping his sores with a potsherd- literally a shard of a broken pot. He laments, then, “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls”. But that’s a bad translation, really. It’s supposed to be jackals and ostriches. Apparently both of these creatures make loud and irritating noises- and so Job compares his pitiful state to that of inconvenient vermin.

But I like the mistranslation, as it works better for my state. I am a French-speaking cavalry officer. We frequently refer to our brothers from another regiment as “dragons”, which is French for dragoon. I am also a Canadian of relatively immediate Italian heritage, and the Romans associated owls with both wisdom and war. The Canadian Army Command and Staff College uses the owl in their heraldry.

So my etymological ramblings eventually bring me to some hope. If I am, in fact, a brother to dragons and a companion to owls, then I have both the support and the wisdom available to me to get past this. Pressure applied incorrectly to cracked iron will shatter it. But if is both heat and force, like the blows of a smith in the forge, the iron can be useful again.

Goodbye, Master Corporal. Your watch is ended. We will see you again on the high ground.


Interlude: New Friends and the Unified Theory of Bureaucratic Motivation

I will finish the Oktoberfest story, I promise. But first, a brief intermission. I have made some new friends at work. One is a lawyer and the other a doctor. You would think the lawyer would be the one with the fancy theories on motivation, but you would be wrong! My new doctor friend, who we shall call John (because that is his name), determined through experience that the motivation of Regular Force (read full-time) officers could for the most part be predicted with… The Five Ps.

They are as follows: Patron, Position, Posting, Pay, and Pension. Keep in mind that both John and I are culturally somewhat Francophone, so we mean Patron the same way that someone would say Godfather. Basically, the career officer is trying to satisfy the demands of as many of the Ps as he can, usually in the order I have presented them. But for those of you not in the Service, this almost certainly applies to anyone in a large organization, with modifications I will explain. I will also explain in reverse order, for reasons that will become clear.

Pension: for those of us fortunate enough to have a sweet pension plan, this is literal. Otherwise, think of it as “deferred financial gain”. Basically, satisfying this P is usually a negative action; don’t do something that will hurt your chances of a promised pot o’gold at the end of the Rainbow of Suffering you are currently walking. Don’t break your contract. Don’t quit early. Keep your head down. Put your nose to the grindstone. Don’t rock the boat. Basically, you’re making sure that you are not doing anything that endangers your ability to put in enough time to get the reward. Legal Bloggers (endearingly, Blawgers), especially defence lawyers, frequently refer to the “First Rule of Policing: if only one person gets to go home to dinner, make sure it is [the cop]”. It’s a harsh way of describing the habit some policemen have of being more willing to end a life than risk their own. I make no comment on its accuracy, just that if it is true it is a good sign of protecting your pension. You need to be alive to collect. Soldiers are actually legally entitled to do so in war: it is unlawful to deny a soldier the right to self-defence.

Pay: This one is obvious. For soldiers, it might mean volunteering for things that may get you promoted (thus more pay). It can also be more subtle; there are many officer types who have been “OUTCAN-hopping”. That is to say, they arrange things such that they stay outside of Canada because it gets them more cookies. Who doesn’t like cookies? This can be benign, but it can also be slightly corrupt. There are frequent occasions where people go to conferences where the issue could have been solved by email, because the conference allows you to claim meals and travel. You can think of pay as “immediate material gain”. In some professions (ahem, lawyers), this is codified: you pay for the full hour even if you only use 15 minutes of it. This is where Public Servants get in trouble. Just because the rules “entitle” you to a 15 dollar glass of orange juice at breakfast doesn’t mean you won’t get in trouble.

Posting: This one is geographic in nature. Some places are nicer than others. A military man might arrange his professional skills in such a way that he always gets to go nice places. I’m somewhat guilty of this: I speak French, and volunteered to join a French Canadian regiment. I determined that suffering the culture shock of working in my second language was paid off in full by the fact that Franco soldiers generally get to live in nice places like Quebec City, Ottawa, and Montreal. As opposed to the backwoods hellholes that Anglo soldiers must endure. Sure, the government needs French speaking officers. But it didn’t have to be me. I had a choice. There’s a darker side to this, of course. Sometimes professionals refuse to acquire needed competencies so as to avoid going places. Or they have non-employment issues that could be resolved, but they choose not to so as to pre-empt posting to somewhere they don’t want to go. These are usually family related: “Sir, I would love to go to the Arctic, but my wife can’t find work up there and she would leave me…” Not to say people should always accept divorce in the name of the job, just that sometimes they…stretch the truth a bit. It’s why single professionals often end up in tough places. You can send a single doctor to an isolated clinic much more easily than a married one.

Position: or promotion, in a hierarchical job. Ah, good old fashioned careerism. This is the one that leads to healthy competition becoming cutthroat. This is also the one that causes mediocre individuals to volunteer for high-profile extracurriculars. Sure, the guy can’t find his ass with both hands and a GPS. But he did a great job on this year’s charitable campaign. Or maybe you take up a new sport, because it gets you in the locker room with all the “grosses poches” (big kahunas). It isn’t necessarily evil, it just means that the organization must be careful to analyze whether the promotion-seeking behaviour is A) desirable and B) productive. In my experience, this doesn’t happen as often as you might hope.

Patron: The Godfather. The Boss. The Powers that Be. Oh yes, this one is fraught with danger. An employee has the responsibility to do what the boss says, of course. And in an ideal world, pleasing the Patron would translate to “doing the job exceptionally well”. Sadly, it can also mean brown-nosing. Setting the conditions to become the beneficiary of nepotism, basically. Socializing excessively with the boss. Claiming to share interests. Unquestioningly supporting your superior’s position. Every boss claims to hate “yes-men”, but few bosses enjoy being challenged by subordinates. This one gets me in a lot of trouble, because of varying interpretations of “loyalty”. The easy route is that loyalty means “supporting the boss”. My (admittedly self-important) interpretation is that it means “always giving them the most honest answer I can”. I feel that if my boss’ plan fails, it is at least in part because I failed to warn them that it could. This is a bit naive at times, as A) I am not always right and B) sometimes the boss just wants me to shut the hell up and do it, for the love of all that is good and holy. As you can probably guess, I get smacked around a lot. And I frequently deserve it. Oh well, I can only be perfect most of the time…

So there you have it. John’s Five Ps. As you can see, it can be both good and bad. In the best of cases, you get a diligent team player, who also engages in beneficial extracurriculars. They give your organization a good name. Organizations that have this kind of person are fortunate indeed. In the grimmer cases, you get smarmy time-servers, who leech resources. Most of the time, you get decent employees who have priorities that don’t entirely match those of “the company”. But understanding this theory of motivation can help you make more sense of how things work in big bureaucratic machines.

Consider yourself enlightened.