Quick quiz: what is a “Samaritan?”

If you answered “a person who selflessly does a good deed,” you are wrong. A Samaritan is simply a person from Samaria, a mountainous region of the Holy Land between Judea and Galilee — more or less what we now call the West Bank of Israel. The ancient Samaritans had a lot in common with the ancient Jews, but they weren’t on the same team, so to speak. Or perhaps it’s better to say they were on the same team (the Abrahams) but were on different shifts.

Put it this way; when the Parable of the Good Samaritan was written in the first century A.D. the idea of a Samaritan doing a good deed for a non-Samaritan (in this case a Jew) was a bit unusual. Those were very politically, culturally, and religiously loaded days in the Holy Land (not unlike today), so there was not a lot of trust between people of different tribes. So one of the key points of the parable is that one should do good deeds for everyone, even those who are “others.”

In that case, the Samaritan was an “other,” and he did a good deed for a Jew. Jesus, himself a Jew, told this parable as a way of illustrating that even those questionable “others” can do good deeds. But the Samaritan was not a “Samaritan” because he was good. It was because he was from Samaria. The fact that he was good made him a good Samaritan, which does not exclude the possibility of there being loads of bad Samaritans.

It’s as if I wrote a parable about a New Yorker doing a good deed for a Quebecer. It would be the Parable of the Good New Yorker. Naturally, that parable would not imply that every New Yorker is good. More importantly, it would not imply that any good person should be referred to as a “New Yorker!”

And yet I see and hear, on a regular basis, people referring to someone who does a good deed as a “Samaritan.” I hear things like “I had a flat tire and a Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” Really? A Samaritan — a person from the Levant, a old biblical guy in a robe and sandals — came along and fixed your tire?

I think not. However, if you said “I had a flat tire and a Good Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Good Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” then you would not be making an error. People would understand that by “Good Samaritan” you mean someone like the man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But when you just say “Samaritan,” all you mean is some dude from Samaria!

Parable of the Good New Yorker

Catalina vs. Thousand Islands

No, this is not a review of commercial, over-the-counter, factory-made salad dressings. Rather, it is a chance for me to get something off my chest, to prove something, and perhaps even exorcise an old demon.

It has to do with Kraft salad dressings. When I was a kid, we didn’t eat a lot of salad at home, but when we did it was dressed with Kraft dressings. The idea of making your own salad dressing was, in the Cape Breton of the 1970s, as obscure and weird as building your own car or making home-made rubber boots. After all, why mix together some homemade slop like some kind of poor person when you can so easily buy a tasty factory-made and standardized product that is even endorsed on television?

My preference at the time was for Catalina, the reddish-colored thick goop that I have since learned is essentially just second-rate oil, fructose, and ketchup. I also liked “Italian” but only the “creamy” one because the oil and vinegar didn’t separate.

There was Kraft Thousand Islands salad dressing, which I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Thousand Islands dressing was pale and creamy (ewww!) and had some weird lumps in it. Those lumps, it turns out, are just chopped up pickles. Had I known that as a kid I might have tried it (I loved pickles!). However, it still would have been hard to get over that creamy texture and color. Remember, this was a household where mayonnaise was considered only slightly more dangerous than Agent Orange.

Kraft-like dressings at Mr. SteerThere’s a reason why, decades later, I am still haunted by these concoctions even though I haven’t touched a Kraft dressing in at least 15 years (actually, that’s not true: Mr. Steer, an old-time downtown Montreal restaurant has dispensers of Kraft — or at least Kraft-like — dressing on every table, and I did try it for old-time’s sake). The reason I have trouble letting go is the following double helix of entwined memory fog:

  • Many people seem to think that Thousand Islands dressing is reddish or reddish-orange
  • Hardly anyone seems to remember Catalina dressing, even though it is still available
  • Here’s the connecty part: when people see or think of reddish-orange Kraft dressings, they always invoke Thousand Islands instead of Catalina

I want to express how much that drives me crazy, but I don’t want to get carried off to the nut house (where, I expect, Catalina is the house dressing on their side salads). So I’ll try to be restrained and civilized:

That drives me crazy.

There. Done.

Part of the reason it drives me crazy (OK, here comes the pathological part) is that, as the youngest of four children (some of the other three having been heartless and cruel towards their baby bro when we were kids), I have for my entire life suffered the phenomenon of feeling like I am never believed, and am never able to convince people that I am right, even when I am absolutely and unequivocally right.

For example, when I was a kid, it would be a bright and sunny day in June and I would say “Wow, look how blue the sky is” and my brother would say “No it’s not. The sky is green and it’s raining.” Nothing I could say would make him accept that it was blue-skied and sunny. He would taunt me with his green sky theory and if my cursed cousins where there they’d always side with him. My frustration would build and I’d finally go running into the house, crying. My Dad would say “Ask your mother” and my Mom would just tell me to stop crying and go outside — which she would not have said if it were, indeed, actually raining.

I’d like to get even more Freudian, but I’ll spare you all that torture and fast-forward over the next 40 years or so by saying that I still get a bit neurotic in situations where I know I’m right but nobody will listen. This manifests itself in many ways, and in many venues, and one of them is when, every couple of years or so, there’s a reference to reddish colored factory-made salad dressing, and people blurt out “Thousand Islands!” I say “No, it’s Catalina!” and people look at me like I have two heads and claim to have never heard of Catalina dressing. Then they continue to guffaw at length about Thousand Islands dressing. (No! The sky is blue and it’s sunny!!!)

This is not an endorsement.

So today, at the grocery store, I spotted a bottle of Catalina dressing. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a decade. My most recent “Catalina/Thousand Islands” (sunny/rainy) episode still fresh in my mind, I was compelled to line up a bottle of Catalina next to a bottle of Thousand Islands and take a photo as evidence (see above).

So there it is, people. Catalina: nice and red. Thousand Islands: pale and lumpy. CASE CLOSED!

Geographical Mistakes of Mountain Equipment Co-op

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), the venerable Canadian mountaineering and outdoorsy retail cooperative that I’ve been a member of for almost 25 years, keeps making mistakes. The mistakes are in where they decide to put their retail stores — at least when it comes to Montreal.

The first Montreal area MEC store opened in 2003, way up at Marché Central on Boulevard L’Acadie. To people from the ROC (Rest Of Canada), “Marché Central” probably sounds pretty central, and from the perspective of a map it sort of is if you were to erroneously consider Laval to be part of Montreal. But ask any youthful and outdoorsy Montrealers if they’ve ever been to Marché Central and you’ll get either a blank look or a grimace.

Marché Central, I’ll have you know, is a huge sprawl of big-box retail outlets in the donut-hole central wasteland of Montreal between Ahuntsic and Ville Saint-Laurent. Nobody goes there except for car-oriented suburbanites from Laval, Town of Mount Royal (where I can guarantee there are very few youthful outdoorsy types), or the West Island. Don’t believe me? Check it out in Street View:

Urban paradise!

This is particularly sad considering the outstanding “green” quality of the building, which should set a standard for the building of retail space. Unfortunately, the Marché Central is nowhere near a Metro station, and while there are buses to Marché Central, they’re not the known and mythical buses lines like the 80, the 105, or the 29. In other words, getting there for the average non-car owning person is a bothersome task, so why would they go there when stores like La Cordée and Atmosphere are located right downtown?

Despite the location, the MEC store in Marché Central seems to have stayed in business, although I rarely see any MEC branded gear being worn by people around town (and we know that 90% of all mountain gear sold never leaves the city).

Contrast this with the Quebec City store. It’s located right in the middle of the pedestrian-friendly and newly revitalized urban neighbourhood of Saint-Roch. Thousands of people walk by the store every day, and lots of them go in. People from Quebec City are sporty by nature, owing to the close proximity of beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers, and forests, and the ease of getting to them due to that city’s lack of traffic jams. So what do you see when you walk around Quebec City? Every second person is wearing a MEC jacket or shoes, and eight out of ten have a shoulder bag with the MEC stamp on it. (The Pod Sling Pack seems to be particularly popular.)

A few months ago I heard that MEC would open another store in the Montreal area. Guess where? On Tachereau (aka “Trashereau”) Boulevard in Greenfield Park! Most Montrealers probably don’t know this (because most Montrealers never go to the South Shore), but “Trashereau” Boulevard is probably the worst stretch of suburban retail blight in all of Quebec. South Shore residents go there often because it’s fairly handy, but it’s an awful place and I for one hate myself on a weekly basis for allowing its geographical convenience to trump my distaste for the area. (I live on the South Shore, in Longueuil.)

Seriously. Have you got a couple of minutes? Take a Street View stroll along this boulevard for a few blocks and tell me what you think.

Boulevard Trashereau!

The new store has just opened up. To encourage Montrealers to go there, MEC bought all of the advertising space in a tunnel in the Berri/UQAM Metro station. It’s the tunnel that leads to the yellow line — the one that goes to the South Shore. Hey MEC, you’re throwing your money away. If Marché Central is hard to get to by public transit, then “Trashereau” Boulevard is like going to the moon.

Not only do you have to change from the STM to the South Shore RTL system, you have to pay an extra $3.50 (each way) to use the buses over there and most importantly you have to figure out which departure gate to use and you’ll likely sit around for 30 minutes waiting for the bus. News Flash! The entire RTL system is set up for one purpose: to funnel suburbanites into the Montreal Metro system. All buses go from the outer reaches into the Terminus Longueuil, like the spokes of a wheel to a hub. It works well for people like me who live here (Longueuil) and work in Montreal because we use it on a daily basis and we learn what buses to take and when. But take a neophyte from Montreal and stick them in the Terminus Longueuil and say “find ye to Tashereau Boulevard” and you’re in for a heck of a spectacle.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t object to MEC opening on the South Shore. In fact it’s a great idea because there are thousands of sporty people living over here. But couldn’t they open in a better location, such as Place Longueuil (walking distance from the Terminus Longueuil and a pretty easy bike ride from Montreal or anywhere on the South Shore) or even the dreaded Dix30? (There are express buses from the Terminus Longueuil to the Dix30, and once you’re there you can stroll and shop leisurely in many outlets and have lunch or a drink without worrying about needing to take a bus or a car to get from place to place.) Why “Trashereau?”

MEC has thoughtfully provided directions on their Web site for the new store, including bus numbers, but I’m willing to bet that most Montrealers won’t bother. They’ll keep on going to the easy-to-get-to outfitters in town. As it stands I’ve never been to the Marché Central store but I’ve been to the Quebec City store plenty of times (and I don’t even live in Quebec City, but whenever I’m there I inevitably walk past the MEC store because it’s right there, in the middle of town). It remains to be seen if I’ll visit the Greenfield Park store. Considering there’s a Valmont Fruiterie nearby that I visit two or three times a month, the odds are good. But if Valmont (or a similar store) opens nearer to my house, I’ll be glad to never go near “Trashereau” Boulevard again.

Blork’s Brief But Essential Guide to Twitter

I‘ve been using Twitter off and on for about a year and a half. Twitter is fun, and occasionally useful, but like everything else it has a high percentage of idiot users who flock to anything that says “Web 2.0” where they immediately behave like those spoiled kids at a party who are always screaming for attention.

Whatever. Those people are generally pretty easy to avoid. And while I admit that the way I use Twitter isn’t necessarily the only, or even the best way to use it, it does seem to be the most sensible way to use it.

Simply put, I use twitter like it’s a text message party among friends. You’re limited to 140 characters per “tweet,” so there’s not much you can say. But when you say it, all your friends can read it, and you can read what your friends say.

That’s it. That’s all.

The key word is “friends.” I really don’t understand those people who claim to be following 800 or 900 people on Twitter. Nobody knows that many people. And nobody can parse that many messages with any degree of sense at all.

What’s worse are the Twitter nOObs (damn, I can’t believe I just said “nOOb,” that’s so 1998) who go all nutty and start following everyone who knows someone who knows someone they know. Their silliness is so damn obvious; they’re only following those people because they hope they will follow them back, thereby increasing their apparent “interestingness.” But everyone knows that the number of people you follow (and who follow you) on Twitter means nothing. It’s not like blog reader statistics where 500 visitors a day really does come with larger bragging rights than 200 visitors a day. Numbers on Twitter mean nothing; particularly if you are just a regular schmuck who nobody has ever heard of!

I’m thinking about “protecting” my tweets, meaning people will have to ask before they can follow me. It’s not because my tweets are so “private;” it’s because I don’t want people I don’t know to be following me on Twitter. That’s like having a stranger at the next table in a restaurant listening to your conversation.

Twitter is not like this blog; this blog is directed towards anyone who cares to read it. I hope for and expect strangers to read it. But Twitter is just chatter between friends. That’s a whole different thing. You people who just want big “follower” numbers should buzz off.

So, after that very long preamble, here is Blork’s essential guide to Twitter:

Authentic: when you tweet because it might be funny/interesting/useful to the handful of your followers who actually know you.

Phoney: when you tweet because you really really hope that some of the huge number of people you “follow” will start following you back, thereby increasing your “followers” number (which really doesn’t impress anyone — at least not anyone worth trying to impress).

Abundant: when you tweet because you think you have to say something to the hundreds of strangers who are following you only because they want you to follow them back.

Rare: when you tweet because you really are interesting/useful/rockstar enough to justify having hundreds of people following you.


Update: notwithstanding that there are other legitimate ways to use Twitter, such as to get stories from the New York Times (as mentioned in the comments), I just want to clarify that what I’m really ranting, or at least railing, against, are people who follow people for no other reason than to try to get followed back. That is a completely stupid use of Twitter. You follow people because (a) you know them, (b) they really are special, or (c) they really do have something useful and topical to Twitter about.