Thursday, May 31, 2007

The demise of the NHL

What is hockey even doing in a city like Anaheim? Recent polls show it as something like the tenth most popular sport in the area, behind women's college volleyball! Yet here they are on the brink of winning their first ever Stanley Cup.

Sure, there was a movie made about a bunch of kids called the Mighty Ducks. In my opinion, the worst hockey movie ever made. I mean come on, the knuckle puck? A young teenage kid shooting it so hard the goalie gets rocketed into the back of the net? A figure skater who dances through opponents? The flying V? Not much to build a legacy off of. I'd like to see them try the flying V in the finals. They'd get knocked on their asses, turn the puck over, and give up a scoring chance for sure. And that's before even managing to get in formation.

Perhaps, when the Ducks win the cup, ice hockey will make it above woman's volleyball in the sports pages for a day. Maybe even propped up all the way to the fourth spot after the baseball scores; Kobe Bryant's off court escapades; and the latest off-season trades in the NFL.

Even more irksome is that non-hockey-city Carolina won the cup last year.
And even-less-hockey-city Tampa Bay won it the year before that.

I think a line should be drawn somewhere slightly south of Boston, through Philadelphia, and all the way to Los Angeles. Any team which falls below that line
should either be moved to a city north of it, or folded.

Nashville had a top team this year, but still lost money. Expect Balsille, the wily Canadian billionaire who just bought the team, to fire-sale much of the top talent in return for prospects and high draft picks. Furthermore, after the team has moved to Canada, I suspect a backroom deal has already been worked out to trade much of those built up draft picks and prospects and a heap of cash to Pittsburgh in return for superstar Sidney Crosby.

You heard it here first. And good old Bettman will have a conniption. We all know Bettman wants the top talent to remain in the US market. It's important for Bettman to make sure money is made in marginal hockey cities who have no business owning a club, in hopes that one day enough fans will start feigning interest. History is not on his side. Remember the Pittsburgh Penguins who couldn't afford Mario Lemieux's salary and ended up practically giving him the team. They should have folded or moved after Lemieux retired the first time - their ticket sales had plummeted without their superstar, but thanks to pure dumb luck, they ended up with superstar Crosby after the lockout.
If hockey has trouble flying in historic hockey town Pittsburgh without a superstar, how the hell will it ever survive in Anaheim, Phoenix, Tampa, Carolina, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, the salary cap limits Crosby's paycheck to something like seven million a year. Take that cap away and he'd easily command double, if not triple that amount. Enough to push the Pens back into financial distress.

This year's Stanley cup final really gave me a dilemma. As a Leafs fan, I've relished Ottawa suffering through countless crash-and-burn playoff scenarios. This year, I'm torn between not wanting some lame-ass California city's name in the cup, and wanting to laugh sadistically at yet another Ottawa humiliation. At the very least, it could have come at the hands of a real hockey town like Detroit.

It's not that there are any particular players on Ottawa that I dislike. I respect many of them and think they have heaps of talent. Everyone loves a Cinderella story (Emery), but at the moment, too many of the players are actually playing like a bunch of Cinderellas to have a chance in this series.
As I said, it's not the players, it's the fans who aren't mature enough yet to win the cup. When the highlight of their year is seeing the Leafs not make the playoffs, it's pretty sad. Perhaps in another twenty years, with the Sens being relegated to the bottom of the league for few stints, I might change my mind. After all, twenty years ago it was the Habs who every Leaf fan despised. Now, I find myself cheering for them.

It would be good if the Sens could hang on and make the series go five games. That way they can lose in Anaheim, while the hockey-bewildered crowd claps gently and exits the stadium before the team can even start hoisting the cup. Finally, the Sens can come home to a small delegation of cheering fans, "Thanks for the ride!" a sign will say. The dejected team will put on half smiles and wave to their fans in appreciation.
Meanwhile, some naughty Leafs fan much like myself will have snuck into the crowd in order to shout, "Losers!" It's very important to be wearing a Sens jersey when one does this, and then point to some hapless and jerseyless Sens fan in order to see them get pumelled like that poor woman from Buffalo.

I'll keep cheering, even if my beloved Leafs are destined for years of mediocracy to come. It's been a constant for much of my life, and perhaps in a couple years, I'll have something new to be excited about. Sidney Crosby down the street from my Maple Leafs. A fun rivalry with a team led by a superstar. Not a bitter one with fans cheering for a team destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, over and over again.

And maybe, finally, the cup can come to a place where there are true hockey fans. People who drink beer and paint their faces. As opposed to sipping cocktails, asking silly questions about the rules, and yawning in hopes of a fight.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Baby food.

I found some new baby food for Zack. I'll try feeding it to him later today.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Deep Snow, on my way up Mount Mgoun.

This is as far as we got trying to Summit Mount Mgoun, the second highest Mountain in Morocco. We were at about 3800 metres. Just before this, we had to ascend up a steep pitch of light snow. Each step felt like expending the effort of a hundred normal stairs. The oxygen was thin and it took a long time to catch my breath after each few steps.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

2007 Mgoun trek

There was something great about the Mgoun trek I did last year in 2006. Despite travelling in the same beautiful region, seeing the same snow-capped mountains and towering rocky gorges, this years trek rarely compared to the previous excursion.

Three days before we left Rabat, eight people were signed up for the trek. On the day the trek started, there were only three of us and we planned to meet a fourth enroute. We never did meet up with the fourth, apparantly just missing him.

I'm dissappointed because, after meticulous planning and replanning, half the people who said they'd go, bailed out. But I'm also frustrated that, later on, I let the more pessimistic feelings in the group dictate the terms on more than one occasion.

The fourth trekker was supposed to meet us in a Berber village two hours hike from our campsite. I arrived at the scheduled time, waiting in a large clearance uphill from the babbling mountain creek. The village square, if an open rocky hill could be called that, was where we sat. Berber children asked for stylos and bonbons. A small mosque behind us belted out the mid-day call to prayer.
We waited for four hours, until a Mercedes truck pulled into town without our fourth trekker. I wanted to wait longer - even though he was four hours late, and even if it meant walking back to the campsite in the dark.
"You go back," I said to the others. "I'll wait until I'm sure he's not coming and then head back with my flashlight."
"No," said the pessimistic group member. "We all head back together before dark. If he's not here, he's not coming."
Eventually I gave in and followed them back.

After the trek finished, I found out the other trekker pulled into the village less than an hour after we'd left.
I should have waited.

Lack of another avid trekker threw the following day off as well. In the gorge we started into, I needed another experienced hiker who was in better shape than I was. Someone to help find routes and plod ahead.

Instead, the burden fell on me. The first time I climbed up the steep sides of the gorge to find a different route, the pessimistic member of the group, waiting below next to the fast-flowing stream, nearly had a fit. I'd been searching for an hour, although was out of sight for only about fifteen minutes before he started screaming from the gorge. "Daaaaaaaan! Daaaaaaan!"

The route I figured to be the correct one lay a few minutes further up a rocky scree and out of site along a ledge. If I continued, I'd be out of site for another ten minutes at least.

"Daaaaaaaan! Daaaaaaaan!" The panic increased in his voice. "Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!"...

"WHAT?" I screamed back, straining my voice.

"Daaaaaaaaaan! Fouad's dead." Fouad being my brother in law, and the third trekker. The words took me a moment to comprehend. "What?" There was no way I could continue now. I had to climb back down just to make sure I'd heard wrong.
Had my brother-in-law tried to follow me and slipped? My heart hammered with panic and I felt a sickly stone settling into the pit of my stomach.
Had Anouar come across his battered corpse? Or had he seen him tumble down the cliff like a bloody ragdoll?
It was my fault, I'd choosen a route too difficult.
What the hell was happening?

I scurried back down to the plateau where I could see Anouar, he was alone. "Where's Fouad?" I shouted.
"Fouad's dead!" he shouted back. He seemed animated and angry, but not crying like I'd expect him to be. My worst fears were confirmed. I'd fucked up, big time. My arrogance at organising a hike had led to disaster.
"There," he pointed to a local Berber shepherd walking toward me from the cliff. The man wore rubber boots and a earth-brown Jalaba. "Go with him!"
As he said it, Fouad walked around a bend in the crags. The fear that had left me sick to my stomach was replaced by immense relief.

The rest of the day went by in a blur. I was too tired to scurry all the way back up the scree and make sure it was the correct escape route - and after thinking Fouad had died trying, I wasn't about to ask someone else to do it. The Berber shepherd, who'd somehow heard us shouting to communicate from miles off, offered a way out. He described an alternate route up a steep hill to the North less than a kilometer behind us. We followed him, and made it up above the gorge and to the campsite just after dark.

Apparantly, during the screaming conversation, I'd heard wrong. "Are you dead?" and later, "We thought you were dead." is what he claims to have said. I'm still convinced that's not the case.

That episode ruined what was supposed to be one of the best days of the entire trip. It breeched the trust of the group and left me on edge. For the following two days, I was almost talked out of doing the exciting last day that I'd planned - an exit through the Arous Gorge. After I thought about things, the continued pessimism only increased my conviction to do it.
At one point I was told, "The muleteers say we should take the safer route, that there's too much water to exit through the Arous gorge."

"I don't believe them," I said. In fact, I didn't believe him. I knew enough Arabic to have followed the conversation earlier that day. That wasn't what the muleteers had said. They had said that they'd never taken the route.

We did exit through the Arous gorge. I said I would do it alone if I had to. It was wet. We repelled through one waterfall and down the side of another one. We walked through frigid water up to our knees for several minutes at a time. Rocky cliffs soared hundreds of metres above us, and at times stood so close together you could touch one side with with each hand. We got soaked. There was uncertainty and there was challenge, and that's exactly what made the final day the best of the trek.

Lessons learned for the next big trek.
Plan a few smaller weekend trips to find out who is committed to their word.
Take at least one other experienced hiker/climber, preferrably more than one, and make sure they know that either they are in, or the trip is off.
Stick to your guns and don't let others pessimism and fear ruin the day. And perhaps, bring a small set of walkie talkies.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Immigration Hell - Part II

Applying for a residence visa to Canada is a lot of work. All in all, close to fifty pages are filled out. Police certificates, medical certificates, tax information, income information, photocopies, proof of continuing relationship, marriage certificates and more are put into the application.
It took us a couple months, working at a snails pace, gathering one document at a time, before we had our application ready. We mailed it off to Canada about eight months ago and haven't heard back. We're supposed to hear something within six weeks, even if it's a letter to say we are somewhere in the processing system. In February, I called someone in immigration and there is no record of our application even arriving.
Either its been lost, or got mishandled somewhere in the process.
So we've started filling out and gathering the documents all over again.
It's especially frustrating after the time we've had with visitor's visa applications. It is possible it got lost in the mail. It is also possible some prick dropped it in the garbage bin, or lost it intentionally. We'll never know.

Canadian Iimmigration Hell.

We parked under a palm tree, two houses down from where the Canadian flag waved atop the blocky white building. Siham, with her documents tucked into a mint-green folder, was let through the consulate’s green metal door. I wished her luck as the guard clanged the entrance shut.
For the next two hours I tapped on the steering wheel, listening to the mix of Arabic and French music on the national radio station. Finally, Siham emerged, distraught and trying to restrain tears. She opened the car door.
“What happened?” I asked.
Siham slumped into the passenger seat, her face scrunched up like it’d taken an emotional gunshot. She choked back a sob. “The immigration woman said she won’t issue me a visa. That there were too many discrepancies?”
“What kind of discrepancies?”
“She says my accounts showed three different pay rates.” Siham’s voice continued to waver. I drove off, turned onto a busy road and headed toward her office.
“That can be explained,” I said, “you took a week unpaid leave so we could get married in Oujda. The others were when you just switched jobs and your salary was being sorted out.”
Siham took a deep breath, her voice cracked when she spoke. “The woman asked if we planned to live in Canada. I told her ‘Yes, but not right now.’ Then she asked ‘Why, if we wanted to live in Canada, are we applying for a visitor’s visa?’” Siham took a deep breath, and continued. “She said if I want to go and stay in Canada then I should be applying for a resident’s visa. I tried to explain that we only want to visit right now, but she had made up her mind. Before I left, she said she wouldn’t issue me a visa.”
I dropped her off at work and returned home, upset that my wife had been stereotyped as a would-be leach on Canadian society. All the evidence pointed to the opposite, and I went over it as I sat down and began writing on my laptop.
Siham had two expired Spanish visas, and one expired French visa. None of these had ever been abused. If she wanted to illegally immigrate to a rich country, she’d already had that chance, in fact she still did because she also had a valid, ten-year, multiple-entry visa for the United States.
Furthermore, the documents Siham provided had gotten her all of the above visas: work certificates; leave of absence certificates; and bank statements showing she made much more than she could earn as an illegal immigrant in Canada. Finally, she had our translated marriage certificate.
Could that be the reason she was rejected? Is it assumed all Moroccan-Canadian marriages harbour a secret intent to stay in Canada illegally?

As soon as we collected her passport later that afternoon, and confirmed the rejection, I felt violated. It felt like I’d just been conned by some guy on the street. My stomach was in knots. It’s not a conman on the street though. It’s a faceless bureaucrat behind a locked iron door. The big door has a little swinging window, like the gateway to the emerald city.
In my scenario, the little munchkin says, “It will cost you one-hundred-and fifty dollars to apply for entrance.” The moment he has the cash in his hand, he says, “Sorry, request denied!” and slams the door in my face. That’s what it cost, $150 Canadian dollars.

I wanted to appeal the decision. I wanted to go over this persons head and raise such hell that it would send shock waves through the immigration department and force them to take competence training.
I started by going to the neighbouring Consular Services part of the embassy. They told me they couldn’t do anything, it was out of their jurisdiction and I had to deal with immigration. The immigration munchkins wouldn’t let me past the big door with the little swinging window – only applicants are allowed inside.
I contacted a Member of Parliament back in Canada. She couldn’t do anything either, except refer me to a website with tips on which “other” documents could be provided. My MP had no jurisdiction, just political influence, and if she used it, it could be politically damaging. In England, a well-known politician handed in an immigration application personally. This was seen as a politician wielding his power and he ended up resigning over the issue.
Immigration officials are entrusted to act on behalf of the Canadian government. Similar to an official police investigation, political interference is severely frowned upon. In fact, even the immigration official’s boss couldn’t question her decision. Immigration officials are given their slice of authority and nobody can veto their decisions. In other words, there was no higher authority.
I could, in theory, appeal the decision through the courts. The process itself takes more than two years because so many people do appeal – an obvious sign of problems. Furthermore, the appeals are made in the same court as pensioners fighting for their pensions. If I appealed based on principal, I’d be delaying the decision for countless old pensioners who probably needed the money a lot more than I did. Lastly, we live in Morocco. How can we appeal a decision all the way over in Canada?
There was no second chance. The immigration official assumed Siham was a wannabe “illegal.” Most “illegals” don’t have MBA degrees from English speaking universities. Most illegals don’t provide documents proving they make triple what someone could make earning minimum wage in Canada.
In the end, we went to the website the MP had given us. We obtained notarized letters from my family inviting us to stay with them. We obtained notarized copies of my bank statements and my father’s income statements. We made copies of our Moroccan gym memberships, our Moroccan car papers, printed photos of our wedding, and our life together since we’d first met. Finally, we went back to reapply.
The second interview is not allowed to be given by the same official. An older gentleman gave Siham her second visa interview. She described him as helpful, not accusing and hostile like the previous woman. He read through the table of contents, listing all of the information we were providing, with an asterisk beside any new documents. After reading it, he stared at the application in disbelief. “You shouldn’t have been rejected before,” he told Siham. “You’re married to a Canadian. You’ve got an American visa. You should be guaranteed a multiple entry visa. Why are you only applying for a single entry this time?”
“Because we applied for a multiple entry before,” Siham said. “We thought it might have had something to do with the woman’s decision.”
“Unfortunately, since you’re applying for a single entry, that’s all I can give you right now. I’m putting a note next to your name on our computer system. If you come back, you are guaranteed a multiple-entry visa. No questions asked. You don’t even need to do the interview.”
We picked up her single entry visa later that day.
Even though hell didn’t get raised, and we had to pay another $70 for the single-entry visa, I felt a tiny bit of satisfaction that someone had said a wrong decision had been made.
It would cost us another $150 to apply the next time, which wouldn’t be for more than a year, but we were guaranteed a visa. At least we would be spared more humiliation. Or so we thought…
It was early in January 2007, and now we were three. Siham felt sufficiently recovered from our son’s November birth to travel overseas and introduce baby Zack to my family. We bought our tickets for late January. We gathered Siham’s work certificates, bank statements and our marriage certificate, as well as Zack’s documents.
Instead of getting the visa right away, Siham was asked to take another interview. She explained our travel intentions to a different woman. “We plan to visit Dan’s brother and sister in Canada for a week before flying down to Florida to stay with his parents.”
Siham described the woman as unsure and sceptical. She kept asking Siham about a photocopy of my Moroccan residence card, which was accidentally taken from our old application. I hadn’t photocopied my updated ID.
“Hrmm.” The woman’s accusatory tone sounded scarily familiar to Siham. “I’m not sure. But since you have a baby and want to visit your husband’s family, I think I’ll give you the visa.”
Later that day, we returned to collect Siham’s passport. Instead of the visa, there was the familiar rejection letter.
The nightmare was happening again, even though we were guaranteed it wouldn’t.
It took me a couple of days to regain my composure enough to write a letter not filled with expletives. With Siham refusing to take part in the humiliating process again, it was my only option if we wanted to visit my family. In the letter, I mentioned she was previously guaranteed a visa. I also mentioned that she visited Canada last year and didn’t abuse her visa.
Can it get any lower risk than that? I asked as I pointed that out in the letter.
We were issued a visa. It cost another $150. In total, we’ve paid $520 for Canadian visa applications. We should have only paid $150 in the first place. To my knowledge, there is still nobody we can officially complain to.