Saturday, July 21, 2012

Aurora

And so, yet again, ultimately, we shrug.

San Ysidro... Columbine... Tuscon... high schools... students... children... politicians... daughters... fathers... mentors... and on goes the litany of loss that few seem to have the courage to stem.  "Going postal" has just become another part of the vernacular, the hard edge of the repeated tragedies that lodged it in our vocabulary a blunted afterthought.

Aurora will not be a bookend to the mass killings that occur so frequently in the United States.  In a few years, more likely weeks, the details will fade and blend in with other mass murders.  We know this and while there may be a smidgen of dialogue on the matter one more time around, The Onion's article on the matter perfectly captured the sense of resignation rather than striking the amusing satirical chord it pursues.  It will all unfold like clockwork and result in... nothing different.

For all the rage, heartbreak and tragedy that are such a palpable part of such tragedies it earns nothing more than a shrug from those closest to the tragedies and the NRA, who digs in to stand its ground and defend the obsolete Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The NRA's advocacy against breaking this chain of chain of behaviour is most specious and flimsy with the old, tired Guns Don't... line, but their investments in influencing politicians and voters to sustain the laws that further institutionalize gun use instead of institutionalizing gun users lends credence to the notion that the more ruthless the means the less worthy the cause.  

America's collective shrug as gun-related deaths continue at the rate of three 9/11's a year is a demonstration of the impotence, stupidity or cowardice of the leadership in that country.  Rather than mobilizing policy to inconvenience gun buyers to the extent that air travelers have been violated, X-rayed, strip-searched, put on no fly lists and inconvenienced for the last 11 years the politicians have sat on their hands because they get a little squeamish about something as icky as a gun remaining on a store shelf while determining if the guy buying poses a threat to society.

This may only be anecdotal, but there is plenty of evidence that it is easier to buy a semi-automatic rifle than get on a plane in the United States.  (I'm done with the hyperbole.)

Depending on what wing nut you ask, allowing gun buyers to accumulate automatic assault weapons with minimal inconvenience ensures the public safety, sustains a constitutionally-enshrined freedom or makes ya 'Merkun, damnit.  Guns, like any other technology, amplify the intent or actions of those using it.  The amplification of the remorseless anger or insanity of James Holmes and everybody who has preceded him is something that is tolerated to the point that it has become all but a irregular ritual in America.

As with just about any other debate that occurs in the public forum today, whether it be north or south or the 49th, the proponents of either side are more interested in smearing their opponents and dealing in whatever spin or half-truths they can to score points, rather than conducting a dialogue that has even a modest chance of earning the respect of the public beyond the respective herds of sheep that will all but bleat support on cue.  The asinine arguments of the perpetually tone-deaf NRA incredulously hold water because so few people are willing to conduct this discussion with an interest in the facts or sound, rational argument.  It echoes the old George W. Bush line, "You're either with us or agin' us."  There is no interest in middle ground or the nuances that lead anyone to anything resembling truth or reality.

So yet we shrug again and the sides of this debate remain paralyzed because they are all much more interested in being balkanized and dug in to support their side - regardless of the death tolls.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Shark's Eye View of Multiculturalism

One of the arguments against multiculturalism is that it encourages a moral relativism because certain cultural or religious groups merit some accommodation of their differences in tradition or beliefs.  With enough accommodations of others the sense of belonging or unity that a more homogenous community would enjoy is eroded.  Such an argument suggests the multiculturalism erodes standards of conduct that a community ought to be able to agree out.  The argument ought to be made, however, that a more multicultural community is inclined to scrutinize the values and traditions of the entire community and strive toward a common belief of what is moral.

On July 16, hours after the conclusion of its Centenary Stampede, the aldermen on Calgary City Council passed a by-law banning shark-fin soup in the city.  It was a decision supported by all but two members of the city council and many were quite proud of this action against the barbaric practice of "finning" sharks and returning them, alive, to the ocean.  Perhaps the tradition or appeal of shark fin soup is waning but it was a move that politicians in Calgary happened to have the stomach for.  Other instances of animal mistreatment are not getting the same clear assessment in the city, however.

During the Calgary Stampede a few days earlier than the shark fin ban was approved, three horses died in the chuckwagon races.  The death of horses in the chuckwagon races over the last few years of the Stampede, if not longer, has become frequent enough that it is growing increasingly difficult for the defenders of the Stampede to argue that the deaths are accidents and are a sad misfortune that occurs despite the efforts to protect the animals and keep them comfortable throughout the competition.  This year the argument changed dramatically when the horses themselves were blamed for their deaths.  If we were talking about Ayrton Senna or Gilles Villeneuve, there might be a case that the victims participated willingly and even pushed themselves just beyond the razor's edge of control that stands between winning and dying.  The horses, however familiar they might become with the races and the demands placed upon them are not such conscious participants.

The arguments against the rodeo events of the Stampede continue to grow louder each passing year but the leaders of the Stampede and other public figures continue to make the blithe case that the rodeo is tradition, suggesting implicitly that tradition ought to remain beyond the scrutiny of outsiders.

The consistent thing to do is peel away the vaunted mantle of  "tradition" from things such as the chuckwagon races and examine them with the same rational, clear eyes that we do other cultures and their traditions.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

TD Bank's Quixotic Swings at Terrorism

The Toronto-Dominion Bank made a step toward distinguishing itself from its competitors this week by closing the accounts of Iranian-Canadians in order to comply with economic sanctions by the federal government against Iran.  That TD alone has made the headlines for its initiative ought to leave a few red faces at the bank because they alone took up this response to government policy changes and they handled the sanctions far less competently than other Canadian banks which managed to do it more competently.  By contrast Scotiabank communicated with its Iranian customers to ensure that their transactions remained compliant with the new sanctions.

Iranian-Canadian customers of TD had their accounts closed, in some cases without clear evidence that customers had transferred money illegally to Iran.  TD, as a service provider, should have strived to serve its customers as Scotiabank did or left the investigation of potential violations to those with the expertise in such matters to allow TD to take the actions more confidently and effectively.

Instead it seems that TD was more intent on serving the government agenda without developing a full strategy or rationale for doing so.  At a time when its competitors are aware of the changing demographics and striving to address the interests and needs of newcomer clients, TD has set itself behind its competitors with a clumsy action against its clients that smacks of racial profiling and harkens back to Dubya-era oversimplification of international policy.  Considering the limited impact their actions would have on Iran-sponsored terrorism versus the damage it has done its reputation, this is a move that deserves a mulligan.  TD, however, is not planning to meet with the Iranian-Canadian Congress for another 2 weeks.  It is summer after all and while the bank is trying to find a steak big enough for its black eye, there are vacations to be had and golf to be played.

Hopefully, TD's bungle here will be a signal to other newcomer customers that they may be better of with other banks if they have any anxieties about sudden bouts of Big Brother banking.



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Branding Canada and (mis)Branding Immigration

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

John Wooden

During its series on immigration this past May, The Globe and Mail ran an article asking "Is Canada's Brand Strong Enough to Attract the Immigrants it Wants?"  I was anticipating an in-depth assessment of how our immigration and multiculturalism policies and history have continued to cast Canada in a good light with potential immigrants.  Instead of seeing an article that pursued that line of discussion, there was the superficial discussion of how difficult it was for Canada to compete with Hollywood's branding machinery as it churns out that glimmering mansion on the hill notion of America.  Despite America's difficulties with immigration and its lag behind Canadian policies, the G&M felt that Canada has to find a way to match Hollywood's marketing might.

The sad thing is that the leading minds of government seem to feel the same way, or at least choose the branding discussion in that light.  Perhaps it is their weak stomach's for anything with a history tainted by the Liberal Party, whether it be Pearson, Trudeau or Laurier.

The branding issue is one that cuts both ways and one that is superficial rather than representative of the realities in both instances.  Let me start with the current branding of Canada.

Immigration is a difficult project  at the best of times, but throughout our history it is something that has been a key to building our country's economic and social infrastructures.  We recruited immigrants to populate and break ground in the western provinces and those people not only provided the bones and souls that built the country but engendered the sense of tolerance that laid the foundation for the multicultural and immigration policies that are so often cited as the Canadian example or model by other countries who are looking for a way to calibrate their own policies to get it right.  We have not done it perfectly but we have done it well and that is something that has attracted immigrants and refugees to our country to this day.  During the eight years I lived overseas, "Canada" evoked a clear sense of the decency and tolerance that we stand for.  Once people got their heads around the fact that I was not American but Canadian there was an air of respect was earned rather than begrudged.  Do we need or wish to compete with Hollywood? Really? Flag patches, anyone?

We have made our mistakes in immigration policy and there are chapters of our immigration past that we regret but we have still integrated countless cultures, languages and individuals of every sort into the nation that we are today.  If we adopted a more homogenous approach to culture, and insisted on being a unilingual society that would have been little to distinguish us from Americans and even less to motivate us to maintain the unique project that is Canada.  That aspect of the Canadian character does indeed penetrate the dross of mass culture coming out of the United States and strikes a chord with people looking for a place to call home.

Instead of reinforcing that brand of Canada, our current government has been more intent on branding the current wave of immigrants coming to Canada and the immigration process itself.  Even though economic and demographic indicators suggest that Canada is facing a shift in population because of the imminent retirement of the baby-boomers, the government still insists that it must proceed cautiously because public opinion polls indicate that only 10% of Canadians favour increasing our rates of immigration.  Citing such claims as a reason to alter policy or the pace of implementation are  inconsistent for a government that has passed its crime omnibus bill, driven forward on its plans with the F-35 fighter jets contracts and other initiatives despite the lack of public support for those endeavours.

This is an issue where the government ought to lead public opinion and make the case for increasing immigration rather than shrugging in defeat its hands are tied because of opposition.  The reality is that the Conservative government is more intent on casting immigration as a risky venture fraught with the threats of fraud and terrorism whenever a foreigner lands on our shores or at one of our airports.  

While the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada has sought to improve the efficiency of the department they still insist on most loudly promoting its policies on enforcement or raising anxieties about immigrants and refugees.  Before a boat of smuggled human cargo even breaches our waters, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada Jason Kenney and Vic Toews, the Minister of Public Safety have set out in classic Chicken Little fashion to mobilize public opinion against these people as queue-jumpers, terrorists, parasitic burdens on the public purse and worse in the most immoderate manner possible.  Whether it is reducing immigration fraud, limiting access to work visas for strippers, restricting the rights of refugees to health care, or limiting family unification programs, the main message coming from the current government implies that immigrants are anything but the net contributors to the Canadian economy or the pluralist, tolerant Canadian society that evidence has proven time and again that they are.  It also overlooks that that has been our brand for generations.

The decision to mislead Canadians on this reality will assure that Canada will cease to be the model and leader in this aspect of social policy and will hinder the efforts of future immigrants to successful integrate into our community.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Distracted or Diffused?: Our Information Obesity

My blog is a means self-expression, but on another, at the same time it makes me - nominally at least - part of the media.  Before that seems too pretentious a claim, I'd like to point out that I had 35 visitors to the last post on here and that my most loyal reader seems to be either my Aunt Marilyn or, of course, my Mom.  I don't have any illusions about a book offer to pull the disparate thoughts that gather here in an almost random fashion like germs on a public washroom faucet.  I could go for broke and share my inner most doubts about how I'm doing as father to my 8-month old - that might be my best shot out the hard-cover achievement - but the intermittency here might indicate that I'm a bit too busy from that.

Hmmm... a bit of voice today. Perhaps a bit of first-person self-consciousness or self-awareness captures readers' attention.  Maybe there would be too many insider jokes to keep people coming back.

The fact is that I am part of the media landscape - a small rickety shed on the outer, outer exurbs of that landscape that needs a bit of paint but out here nonetheless.  Wherever I happen to be in terms of position on the political spectrum and proximity to the online version of the titillation found at the supermarket check-out I am another voice and for some, let's say 35 people, this blog might just be worth a few minutes of their day to hang on every word (HA!) or briefly skim before moving on.

At a time when newspapers ought to draft their own obituaries for near-future use, the diffusion of audiences to wherever they want to go for the information they consume (not necessarily need or want) the changes that are occurring in the media are occurring rapidly.  Ponder the disappearance of video stores and the option people have to stream what they want to watch and the future of network television may be on the same conveyor belt to demise as well.  Audiences are free to go wherever they want for information or perspective.

The problem may be that we are gravitating to the media sources that tell us what we want to hear rather than giving us what is germane to the discussion in the public forum.  It may be one thing for me to approve email feeds from Ikea, Mountain Equipment Co-op and ECM (my favorite jazz label) to let me know what what bargains or new products are coming down the pipe, or to set up my Twitter feed to give me the sports news that the Calgary newspapers would loathe to provide me but when it comes to hard news, it is quite another.

I have confessed to my own laziness when it comes to following the news and like to believe that I am still discerning in valuing the information and news that is out there, though there are a few sources that I would not bother with at all because I find the positions too extreme and offensive to be a valuable contribution to the life of the public forum.  I have never had someone casually talk to me about what Ezra Levant has to say and that indicates to me that despite his audience, he (unlike Jon Stewart or Rick Mercer) is more of an entertainer than the credible voice whatever the coding of his routine and props may indicate.

Regardless of the medium that is being used it is clear that the options available to the public today make it even less likely that a consensus is going to be achieved in the public forum.  For the past 15-20 years, people have suggested that in the electoral setting that the problem is that there has been vote splitting on the right and more recently on the left.  Regardless of how the 3, 4 or 5 party system is working, the more significant diffusion of audiences and opinion occurs in the media, allowing people to gravitate to the voices that tell them what they want to hear.  Those people, in turn, shout down the mainstream media for being to slow or too far from the "reality" that they choose to isolate themselves in.  The mainstream media is married to an old business model and too slow to figure out how to adapt.

From a business perspective it is easy enough to be smug about an organization or industry that has been too out of touch to respond to changes in the business environment.  The public forum, however, will be difficult to knit together.  It will be hard enough to get a consensus anymore on what topics are worthy of discussion, harder still to determine the points of view to debate from and harder still anymore to determine who are the most reliable sources of information or the most credible and comprehensive of thinkers.

Too many people today have the most specious or superficial of grasps of the main topics of the day or, worse still the most sophisticated and nuanced arguments over the most trivial of subjects.  With the glut of dross clogging the arteries of social media as people trying to polish their snark, sarcasm and pop culture references to levels that gain the most circulation and attention it seems that people in that realm are more interested in writing the best possible one-liners, rather than capturing and pinning down the issues and topics that are of ever increasing urgency.  As far as engaging in those issues long enough to be substantial, it seems that the majority lose interest when the newly tapped vein of comedic opportunity has run dry.  Just as people use to say that there was only enough collective attention to sustain one war at a time, it seems that now there is only enough oxygen on the internet to sustain interest in an injustice, cause or cause celebre for about an hour.

Perhaps there is a belief that the subgroup that is most attracted to a certain topic or cause will mobilize itself to take action, but there remain overgrowing groups of the indifferent who will idle their time away, assuming that their passive opinion will somehow penetrate the ether to influence events.

That just isn't going to happen, though.  Whether people are distracted by the latest bit of pop culture ephemera or their actions stilled by the uncertainty about what they ought to be doing and whether or not society is going in the right direction, their seems to be an overpowering apathy.  Like junk food eaters, the information that we have been overloaded with has made us drowsier and a bit too somnolent.  People ought to be either engaging themselves in those areas they profess to have a passionate interest in, or broadening their scope of interest and discussion to rebuild some sort of word of mouth consensus of what is what today.

Otherwise, the information that we are so obsessed with hoarding will only preoccupy us like Nero's muzak.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Negotiating Canada

Last week I had the misfortune of being button-holed by a right-wing pundit.  It was at a reception following a day-long conference and though the wine had just started breathing the pundit was already on fire.  Perhaps it was a bit of the pent-up buzz that one might get after a long discussion of policy but the lugubrious patter was on full-force.  Another possibility is that the pundit knew that such patter would be enough to suspend the polite from moving on to another calmer conversation.

Being a policy conference, it was an occasion for some rather informed pondering of the nation and the direction that it was going.  A minister of the federal government contributed to the discussion, proposing approaches that would streamline and simplify procedures, holding the audience in thrall with the command of the portfolio of the expedience with which things were taking place.

The pundit was among those in the minister's corner or fan club and was eager to lay claim to being an influence, if not the source of the policies.  "It's all out of my book.  Look it up..."

I never take comfort in such expedience and the rush to a simplified vision of this country.  When the pundit went on to compare Canada to Australia and added that Australia was miles ahead of us on this portfolio, I bit my tongue and spared myself the debate that would have ensued had I cited Australia's terra nullius posture and how it has tainted its relationship with its indigenous people and gives reason to question how relevant comparisons to that country can be on topics of social policy.

While I chewed my tongue, the pundit when on to say that our problem was Quebec and that without it we would be much better off today.  In a continent where the primary thing distinguishing our nation from the United States is the presence of Quebec in the heart of our country, I find it extremely beneficial that Quebec is a part of Canada.

Throughout Canada's history its leaders, save the most recent with his laser focus on dismantling all that it stands for, have proceeded in a manner that, to varying degrees, acknowledged the nation's pluralist reality.  It is a reality that has encouraged us to become a champion of individual over collectivist rights, provided us with the infrastructure or the mental algorithm that has allowed multiculturalism to thrive here since the days of Laurier who said of our pluralism and the realities of building the nation at that time, "Let them look to the past, but let them also look to the future; let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children."


As our country has evolved, there has never been an impulse to cling to the fast and simple response or resolution to the challenges that we have faced or to the quest to define ourselves.  We have never wedded ourselves to a definition of Canada or Canadian that has been cast in stone.  The realities have never been so iron clad that Canadians have asserted that such things as health care or gun control ought to be railed against because they are unCanadian.  If they have, they found themselves in a minority due to the poor reasoning.  Instead, we have always been willing to ponder the arguments, even weigh their nuances in both official languages and continue to strive for the responses, policies and actions that retain our pluralism and our commitment to the rights and dignity of our neighbours whether they are citizens or live under circumstances less accommodating than Canada's.


Where Quebec actually has caused us to lag behind other nations is something that I will not bother to dignify.  It may not be an ideal marriage between the ten provinces or two nations - choose your metaphor - but it is a marriage that has defined us and made Canada mature more quickly than nations that have insisted on their homogeneity or indulged in a profligacy of certitude about who they are or what they ought to be.


The relationship between French and English Canada has been in many ways what might be best called thermostatic, bringing or restoring balance whenever there is a tendency to swerve too far to the left or right.  Today at a time when the Conservatives swerve to the right has redefined it as a government that is in favour of corporate welfare rather than common sense, the arguments that "progress" is being impeded by Quebec are reassuring to those who still love the notion of Canada as a land of good government and decent ideals.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Train Story 17: The Social Commentator

The scent of Listerine carries five rows.

He is wrapped in a horse blanket, has a sombrero dangling down his back and a train engineer's hat mashed onto his head.  He tears his attention away from his companion to focus on three 20-somethings.  He lets them know that they are useless punks, even though they look like university students who will pose their biggest threat to society if they have to resort to their fall back option of commercial banking.

He says they are punks and challenges them to do as much with their lives as he did when he was younger.  The rant disregards decorum.  A small African woman burrows into a copy of Metro to evade the spittle and scent that menaces during the rant as he lays into the three men, who are doing their best not to laugh in his face.

The train stops at the next station and the man gropes for his feet and stands he turns to the crowd on the train and titles himself in a manner the nastiest of satirists would not affix.

"I am Pink Panther."

With that, he exits to the platform at City Hall Station, disappearing into the unconsumed detritus of pending progress.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pynchon, Hunsperger, Leech and Smith

"I would set you free, if I knew how.  But it isn't free out here.  All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all.  I can't even give you hope that it will be different someday - that They'll come out and forget death, and lose Their technology's elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level - and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive."
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, 1973

During an election campaign where the meteoric rise of a libertarian option has brought a clear light to the blemishes and repercussions of that party's interpretation of freedom, I have tuned out.  My mind has been long made up about how I want to vote and my reasons for opting for a liberal and progressive party rather than a libertarian one is well detailed in the above passage from Thomas Pynchon's magnum opus and has been emphasized by Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith and the candidates - to the surprise of few - who have done their utmost to live up to the suspicions of many over the last week of the provincial campaign.

The liberty that Wild Rose speaks to is, like the version described by Pynchon above is elitist, destructive and premised on fear.  When Allan Hunsperger, Wildrose candidate for Edmonton South-West made his homophobic remarks, it reflected a narrow view of liberty that insists a certain intolerant, phobic "we" be free to protect themselves from others whose differences mean and inflict no harm.  That "we" feels it is appropriate and well within their rights to oppress and vilify others.  There were calls for Hunsperger to step down.  Those have fallen ignored by a defiant Smith who instead insists that the criticism of Hunsperger and Wildrose Calgary-Greenway candidate/homophobe Ron Leech were character-assassination by their opponents rather than the expression of clear concerns about the quality of the men who were running for the Wildrose Party and their interpretation of freedom and their ability to represent all of their constituents.  Leech of course, went one better than Hunsperger by saying being caucasian made him better suited to represent all of his constituents than the candidates of other ethnic origins.  

Wildrose, as Pynchon's quote suggests, have been the loudest when it comes to speaking about freedom but it is the freedom to protect their cadre of supports from their own fears at whatever the cost to others who they deem unfit to share in the freedom they demand for themselves.  The capitalized "They" in Pynchon's passage is not a typo but an emphasis of the status they have assumed for themselves for the strength of their certitude.  Danielle Smith's defiance that she is not against certain things but that she supports her candidates because of their right to free-speech is not the type of compromise that a leader of the province ought to be making.  It is not a compromise on her part of anything other than her principles.  She is staking her hopes on Albertans compromising on a government of such narrow vision and talent as the one she would cobble together to provide a wobbly replacement to the current government rather than making the stand required to communicate that Wildrose would protect the freedoms of all Albertans rather than those who carry WRP membership cards.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Conscience Rights: A Different Type of Political Dishonesty

A new phrase that has entered the election ergot in Alberta is "conscience rights."  At first blush it seems innocuous or even blandly bureaucratic and suggests a certain autonomy when it comes to exercising one's individual rights.  In practice, however, it gives health professionals and perhaps marriage commissioners the option to decline doing things which are against their conscience.  The first examples that get cited when expressing concern about the implications of this policy would be the decision of marriage commissioners to decline requests to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The rationale is to give people the rights to do their jobs under conditions which they can feel comfortable, but the opportunity to pick and choose the aspects of our jobs we feel like doing is a privilege afforded to very few people.  As the Globe and Mail puts it, the law is "a license to discriminate."  The implications of where the thin edge of this wedge might lead are easy enough to blow out of proportion.  There would be a point where the push back against certain cases of discrimination would become an embarrassment to the individuals who choose to go a step too far through that proposed gray area where a little bit of discrimination is acceptable.  Before reaching the point where the narrow-minded push the notion of conscience rights to its most ridiculous, there will be plenty of opportunities for bigots to pass judgement on those it considers other for their values or lifestyles.

The notion of a political party or government-in-waiting deciding that it does not have the authority to assert what is right begs the question, "Why are you running for office if you want to erode your own authority to ensure the rights and safety of all individuals?"  It sounds on first reading that giving people the right to forego doing something they find morally icky is a protection of individual rights but it is ultimately the opposite.  I would not go so far as to cite the more sinister of adjectives to refer to this but the wordplay at the crux here is conniving and taps a vein of dishonesty far different from the broken electoral promise or the current favorite the "previous government's deficit is worse than we thought."  Wildrose is suggesting there are certain areas where a government's involvement or interference is unwelcome but that everyone else's interference most certainly is despite the divisions and conflicts that would emerge because of it.  What they really want to say is that all of us are Albertans but some of us more Albertan than others.  (Whoops, that slipped out... really.)

Elected officials and the governments that they form must have the integrity and courage to protect the basic rights of individuals rather than defer those responsibilities in a manner that ultimately suggests that they do not value them.  At a time where in many instances, the rights of minorities have been hard won, the hesitance to protect them belies a greater deficit of integrity rather than an instance where the courage required to stand for what is right is particularly overmatched.  The proposal to implement such policies is ultimately regressive and fails to acknowledge that Alberta is indeed a pluralistic society.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Bridge

After seemingly interminable controversy, the Peace Bridge is an activated part of Calgary's infrastructure.  For two and a half weeks now, the bridge has been part of the city's pathway system and the controversy seems to have ebbed away.

This past Sunday, my wife said, "Let's go do the bridge."  It was not something that survived my recollection of the long weekend for my colleagues at the office and it is unlikely that my wife will pose the suggestion that way again.  I've already crossed the bridge frequently enough as a part of my jogging regimen and it was not something that I've regarded as an event or an outing.  I thought it would be a nice stroll to get out of the house for a bit and head home.

The bridge itself on a Sunday afternoon as bustling with activity - more of a confirmation than a revelation from my perspective.  Despite the blustery winds and the coolness over open water, a string band was playing at the centre of the bridge and passersby had stopped to listen for a while and plunk the odd coin or bill into a guitar case.  People dawdled around photographing the bridge and posing as well.  The familiar question, "Do you want to be in it?" was asked of a middle aged man photographing his wife, a question that will be asked again and again as other people stop to treat the bridge as something other than a bit of engineered convenience.

The public space of the downtown area has been expanded and enhanced.  I have crossed the bridge often enough to regard it as another option for getting from south to north or back again, but it has been evidenced as well over the scant few weeks that have passed that it will become, if it hasn't already, an asset to the downtown area and the city itself.  Few other additions to the city's infrastructure will alter the look of the city and expand the public realm in as creative a way as the bridge and it will invite and encourage a certain creativity to that interaction as well.

For all of the criticism of the cost of the bridge and its proximity to other structures around it, those structures do not invite the same degree of interaction as the Peace Bridge.  The two bridges to the west of it, the pedestrian bridge under the LRT tracks and the sidewalks on the 10th Street bridge, are strictly utilitarian and provide strict meat and potatoes access from points A to B.  You'd swear those were the verbatim specifications the engineers were given to work with.

Granted the bridge is expensive, but it is being celebrated in ways that few other pieces of $25 million infrastructure will be celebrated.  Or paused at and reflected upon.  Or dawdled on.  Much of the investment in the infrastructure of this city has demonstrated a lack of imagination or breadth of concept of what a community ought to be.  A stretch of the Stoney Trail ring road won't be contemplated for the length of time that pedestrians, dog walkers or photographers ponder the Peace Bridge.  With the ring road, it was hurry up and get the thing open, I've got places to go.  The unfair thing about the scrutiny that has been focused on the Bridge and its expense is that other projects in and around Calgary will likely not be subjected to it.  A stretch of highway, an expanded water and sewage system, a 60-minute school bus commute for kids are regarded as necessities and their net benefits or expenses are rarely subjected to the fastidious ledger keeping that the Peace Bridge was roasted for by its critics.  Anyone who measures the world by numbers alone will be poorer for the narrowness of vision.  It is indeed time to put aside the controversy about the bridge and stand in the middle of it a ponder the realm that is now available to the city.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

PC vs WRP :: Coke vs Pepsi

On the morning of April 5, as I went by the same corner that I referenced in my Candidate and the Tuna Can post the local Progressive Conservative candidate and two of her team stood on the corner facing the southbound traffic on 14th Street NW.  The three of them waved at the traffic and clutched a small campaign sign to add a bit of context to her efforts on this crisp morning.  Drenched by the sun as they were, I'm not certain if they had the visibility that they hoped for.  I nodded as I went by and stowed any notions I had about asking if she was with the party that brought in our (ignored) distracted driving laws.

The three of them did not have a brochure amongst them from what I could tell and they seemed quite caught of guard to be face to face with a pedestrian of all things even though they were about 15-20 metres away from a bus stop and on the western edge of one of Calgary's more walkable neighbourhoods.

The issue I have to take up with this whole strategy of waving is that it is nothing more than a matter of building a bit of recognition.  There is no attempt at indicating what policies the party she represents stands for, the assumption is that the visual impact alone will be enough to sway voters, raise interest or even motivate voting or some other participation in the campaign.  The campaigns of the Progressive Cosnervatives and the Wild Rose Party seem to be a combination of stealth and smear with little effort to roll out policy or present anything other than the most superficial of distinctions.  All I can say about the smears is that both parties are right.  Now give me a reason to vote for rather than against.

The fact the campaign and its coverage are so lacking in substantial depth is another one of the reasons why voters are tuning out.  There was a time when the media parsed out campaign strategies and candidates with the phrase "style over substance" to talk about occasions when the voters were falling for charisma.  Little chance of that happening anymore.  In place of style there has been much greater emphasis on the caution of messaging and saying as little as possible out on the campaign trail.  We have seen it often enough in elections over the last decade, where campaigners set out to say as little as possible and say it as well as they can.  A politician today trots out the party colours and has no message of substance to go with it, merely hoping to mobilize the party's "base."  They might as well be marketing soft drinks.  The PC's hope to mobilize the base this time around is futile and they are not doing a good job of presenting their policy or vision to people who tend to vote for more centrist options.

Politicians who risk coming forward with the volatile mix of policy and open communications play a high-risk, high-reward game.  The rest, who mumble along under the flag of their party, likely lack the courage and skill that warrant the salaries they are asking the voters for the opportunity to earn.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Candidate and the Tuna Can

View of local candidate's sign at Kensington
Road and 14th St. NW, April 5, 2012.
The Alberta election is unfolding and the dialogue seems to lean heavily on the components of the campaign that lie quite far away from what once passed as main street campaigning.  The newspapers give their horse race accounts of the polls and fundraising and report on the spending announcements that party leader have made or railed against.  The campaign signs have appeared in all their glory and left me wondering when the dandelions will appear.  Vandals, of course, have left their mark as well.  All of it – the fundraising, polling and posting of signs - has occurred with little evidence of a human hand being involved.  That is the reality, but the likelihood that a volunteer put the time in diminishes as the parties' war chests grow.

The exceptions are the signs that people tolerate plunging into their front lawns.  In those rare instances there is the unspoken suggestion of commitment to a campaign and candidate.  Apart from that there is the feeling that money has been unloosed on the electorate, not only the money that the parties deign to dangle in front of voters with one promise or another, but also the war chests that are opened up for the four-week spending spree.


On my way to work this morning, I came upon an example of how mindlessly that money filters into the campaign.  On one busy corner near Kensington, there is a four-sided advertising installation with the sundry ads for canned tuna, a distant suburban development and the local incumbent.  The incumbent’s campaign ad, however was placed at the least visible of the four panels in this fixture: the advertising equivalent of the clich├ęd New York closet window that opened onto the wall of the next building.  Nobody other than the most occasional and attentive of passersby is going to see this, but that is where the campaign money went.  It went from campaign to a vendor who treated the poster or product with all the seriousness of the tuna ad.  Less, actually.


Over the last nine years, I have only had one political candidate knock on my door and it was a visit that I welcomed.  I volunteered for the man for two campaigns and continue to track his career and wait for him to either campaign again in the future or voice his opinions about the issues of the day.  There is a word of mouth quality that formed from those doorstep encounters.  Now, word of mouth has been replaced by “going viral” and it is far less likely to be positive.

Fewer and fewer of the interactions of political campaigns are as personalized or constructive as door-knocking.  Instead, there seems to be more motivation to let the money dictate the direction that a campaign ought to go.  This is all for the sake of some vague notion of efficiency in the electoral process and it is that pursuit of efficiency that brings us to a world were robo-diallers are as de rigeur as they have become and campaign donations get directed into the overmediated muddle that blindly and randomly places campaign signs as haphazardly as I noticed today.  Donating might be fine, but there is far more that can be accomplished by volunteering and actually bringing your eyes and ears to the campaign rather than sending your dollars on their merry, misguided way.

The lesson today is that no matter how capable, wise or principled a politician or party might be, if you choose to communicate your vision and ideas in the marketplace rather than on the doorstep you become a product, nothing more.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

THIS is News?!?

A few weeks ago I came across the concept of Gresham's Law - the shorthand of which is bad money drives out good - and the possibility that it would apply to the movement of information as well.  This point would be confirmed by an honest response to the question of whether you would recirculate the link for a) this blog post or b) a cat video.

Apart from that test of the readers there are a few examples of what qualifies for conversation as we come out of the major news events of the last week or so.  Out of the federal budget and its consequences, conversation turned to the fate of the penny and the Trudeau-Brazeau boxing match that came a few days later than the more substantial components and implications of the budget.  In the United States, the news that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of strip searches for any person who breaks the law - even for not having loud enough a bell on your bike - may have been overshadowed by Alec Baldwin's fury over the paparazzi photographing his fiance.

The more superficial information available not only gets traction in the collective consciousness and dialogue but becomes the metonym for the entire subject as well.  This is not just something that is happening around the proverbial water cooler but is being generated in the media as well.  Lawrence Martin mused about how Justin Trudeau's victory may have been a turning point in his political career, one which has been often or always characterized by the pundits' tendency to forego their better judgment to attempt to draft their own Hollywood plots for Justin to inhabit.  There doesn't seem to be much point in bring the pertinent and required depth to a story that deserves it but favour burnishing less substantial stories as the crux of a matter that has great bearing on our well-being.


Saturday, March 31, 2012

Katimavik and the Conservatives' Nation-Eroding Policies

For the second time in its history, the Canadian youth program Katimavik has been targeted for government funding cuts.  The program, which was launched in 1978, gives Canadian youth the opportunity to volunteer across the country.  The program provides its participants the opportunity to broaden their life experience and develop leadership skills.  Rather than biding their time on a highway crew or in a fast food restaurant, participants have the opportunity to rub elbows with or serve people from a diversity of backgrounds.  The period in the Katimavik program gives its participants the wisdom and experience to move more confidently into adulthood.  One comparison would be with the Peace Corps in the United States and to the Clinton-era Americorps that operates with a similar mandate as Katimavik.


Katimavik gives young people the opportunity to serve their country, a phrase that we associate with military service in an all-too-reflexive and limiting way.  Katimavik provides the low-key nation-building but earns its reputation among those who have benefited from it by serving in the program or by having our youth step forward to provide their energy and undervalued, burgeoning skills to a project or community that would normally have to wait its turn.  The opportunity that Katimavik participants have had to travel to other parts of Canada and grasp its diversity in all its forms also contributed to fostering our identity in ways that peace-keeping and the CBC do, but waging war and paving highways do not.  It is a win-win-win enterprise that has over the years developed untold social and human capital that has enhanced our nation.  At a time when the government's need to be frugal or austere fails to extend to legitimate process for the tendering of its fighter jet contract, Katimavik's demise is deemed necessary for the country's financial well-being.  It is nothing more than an expression of disdain for such a commitment to nation-building in a place where identity has long been subject to question and ought to be allowed to evolve through the dialogues that occur amongst rather than foisted upon us by a government with a top-down mentality about citizenship.


In 1986, when Katimavik first met the Finance Minister's scalpel, Senator Jacques Hebert, who initiated the program went on a 21-day hunger strike against the cuts and eventually a solution was cobbled together to keep the program alive.  Whether it was calculated political theatre or a demonstration of his passionate commitment to the contribution to Canadian life and youth, the senator expressed his opposition to the cuts in a way that exceeded the myopic lunge to rhetoric that today's opposition usually resorts.  Thus far, the opposition has been relatively muted.


As with the fighter jet program and its omnibus crime bill, the Conservative government has adopted an approach to policy making that ignores evidence available to it and event subverts it for its own purposes.  Unlike the Mulroney Conservatives, who recognized the value of the program and found a solution that kept the program going by assembling private support for it, this batch of Conservatives will do as it wishes for little good other reason other than satisfying its own sense of spite.  A government that insists on being so inflexible and refuses to let sound reasoning and rational insight permeate policy-making is doing the best it can to erode the core values that I still believe this country stands for.  

Friday, March 30, 2012

WRP versus WKRP

With the announcement of the long anticipated provincial election this week Calgary Herald scribe Jason Markusoff tweeted about the difficulty of abbreviating the name of the Wild Rose Party without adding the desired "K" to pay fitting homage to a sitcom classic hard-wired into the synapses of many of my generation.  Markusoff's tweet earned a few prompt replies about flying turkeys, but there seem to be a few more fitting comparisons that could be drawn between the gang at WKRP and Wild Rose.

WKRP vs WPIG - WKRP's fiercest rival on the airways and in the men's room stalls was WPIG, which had, of course, a pig mascot that rivaled the 'KRP Carp. Wild Rose has made it clear that they are targetting government waste and has targetted the Alberta Conservatives do-nothing committees and other waste.  While the WRP is making what hay it can of the PC's spending, it will take a lot to prove that it is as willing to fight pork as Herb Tarlek and Les Nessman were.

The Big Guy vs Libertarianism - WKRP manager "Big Guy" Arthur Carlson kept himself safely ensconced and away from the decision-making that befit his title and office space.  With the WRP's staunch libertarian stance, is Danielle Smith eyeing a nice pen set and revolving chair for the premier's office so she can indulge in Carlson-esque anti-aircraft fire?  Really, what would a liberatarian government do?
Hub Caps vs Jennifer Marlow - Nothing happening here.  Just move along folks...

Drunk Driving Laws and Johnny Fever - One of the WRP's big pre-election splashes was their criticism of the Alberta PC's legislation bringing in tougher driving laws.  Perhaps they are taking note of Johnny Fever's preternatural performance during an on-air drunk-driving demonstration.

Phone cops - Elections just don't seem to be complete without Robo-diallers anymore.  Sounds like it is time to call in Johnny Fever's greatest fear, well greatest fear after a palimony suit... or a bookie...

Les Nessman vs the WRP's Cast of Dozens - Few things stalled success and professionalism at WKRP the way Les Nessman's obsession with the farm reports at the expense of all else.  How long will it be until one of the WRP's candidates encounters foot in mouth disease and Danielle Smith has to flip the switch on spin control?  A bit of earnest incompetence on the hustings would certainly make the campaign interesting, unless there is a strict Mama Carlson type telling the candidates to stay on message.  If the WRP's candidates behave well, there will be plenty of observers waiting for the WRP MLA's to conduct themselves like a certain well-dressed punk band that WKRP sponsored a concert for.  However, a close look at the WRP roster reveals the calibre of candidate that raised so many concerns about the federal Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative Parties.

Religion? - The WRP seems to have distanced itself from religious groups, at least when compared to the Conservative Party of Canada and the Republican Party.  Hopefully that remains the case.  WKRP had to grapple with Reverend Little Ed and had a hard time coming out on top in that one.

Dungarees vs Suits - Given the number of disaffected right wing Progressive Conservatives who have headed to Wild Rose over the last few years one might argue that there is a culture war between the two parties for the hearts and mind of Albertans.  The Wild Rose Party seems to be insisting that a stay the course, this is what Alberta is attack on the Progressive Conservatives' move toward the centre under Alison Redford.  The only question is who the true rebels are in this culture war - the staid, certitude of the WRP or the middle of the road PC's.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Train Story 16: The Guys

For all intents, the suit is discarded.  It's an encumbrance.  It doesn't belong on him, but the uniform for downtown is required.  The tie hasn't been loosened, but it was never tied right to begin with.  He has a hardened look of someone brought on because he was team player.  A scar on the outside edge of his eyelid suggests a familiarity with the trenches and corners of a hockey rink, or possession of a broader anecdote that would be related over a beer and blythe, vaguely furtive cigarette at the end of the day.  A raspy voice better designed for that moment or a cubicle-to-cubicle exchange of curses as the crash of a phone into its rings in the ear with surprising length before it dissolves.  A cut on the knuckle, a few days old, glistening with lymph suggests that his work day is as much an intrusion as the suit.

As far as he knows, cares or desires, he is dressed as his friend is: T-shirt, hoodie and so on, Heineken earbuds tucked under the shirt and next to the skin for the sake of convenience or attachment.  The conversation is casual as far as I can tell.  Nothing to do with work, but casual suggestions of better things to do and an agreement at that moment to go for a few beers.  They get off, the friend barks out a "Goodbye train people."

The closest bar in sight is in the shadow of a wrecking ball and I turn to gaze upon the reflection of the fluorescent lights in the stowed sunglasses of the woman sitting by the door.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Y'Done With the Paper? - A Confession

A few years ago I was reading a story that talked about how the men in a certain community at a certain time read the newspaper everyday, cover to cover.  I cannot remember if it was a story or a novel or whether it was by Carol Shields, Alice Munro or someone else entirely, but as that fragment of a small town portrait found a way to stay on top of the pile of my thoughts over the years, I have found that detail more telling and, sadly, dated than I would have imagined when I first came across it.
I would like to fancy myself as informed, up to date on the events of the day but I would have to admit that I really do not devote as much time to the news as I used to.  The few times I actually pick up a newspaper I do little more than glance at the headlines for something that might be worth a quick skim or, maybe a full reading.  I look a bit more closely at articles on line from time to time, but for the most part I am content with the assumptions that come together from the headlines alone.

Those assumptions are based on a degree of trust in the sources and a sense of what piques their interest or ire.  There are "news sources" that I disregard entirely because of the transparency of their agendas.  Sun TV in Canada would be one example of one of those organizations best left disregarded.  In other instances there is the question of whether or not the story is significant enough to concern me.  If a story does not unfold with further consequence or nuance I don't bother to pay much attention to it beyond the headlines.  It is not entirely my fault that I don't follow the news the way I used to or ought to.  The fact that CNN altered its programming to cover the breaking news of Whitney Houston's death and MTV did not indicates to me that the network has either an excess capacity for the frivolous or a mandate to focus on or intensify spectacle rather than report news with any depth.  In contrast to that, there was great difficulty making the medicare debate in the US in 2010 "sexy" because it required so much depth to address the issues.

I am getting away from my point about news sources and my tendency to trust them without reading them in depth.  I realize that in my selective use of the news media there is a tendency to get only a superficial grasp of issues that are of interest to me.  When there is a reporter or media organization that I trust more, I tend to colour in the depth based on their reputation and tendencies.  I have a certain understanding of their voice, tendencies and point of view and the assumption that they would not say certain things unless the situation was extreme enough to call for it.  There is coding that goes on in my mind - at a superficial level - and I have to admit that my grasp of a story remains at that superficial level until I feel that the story is one I ought to pay attention to.  The question in my mind is that whether my trust in certain sources of media is a sign that I have become more refined or merely lazier in my consumption of information.  I am not sure but I would have to say the latter, if only to err on the side of caution.

Whatever the case, I probably have a more superficial grasp of the news - if that is any grasp at all - than I had when I was a teenager for instance and delivered the local paper and had my nose in it throughout the route everyday, far more than I ever read it today.  The problem with that trust in my selected news sources is that I still rarely drift past the headlines and I become reliant on my coding of what reporters are saying about the news.  I rarely dig deep enough to ensure that my trust is well-placed or that I have the background required for a particular story.  I wonder at times if I'm taking for granted a story that is far more complex than I assume and nod along at its progress only to find that I have no idea of its complexity.

Maybe these uncertainties are ungrounded or indicate a certain sensitivity to my response to the news.  Geraldo Rivera's assertion last week that a black youth's gun-related death was because he was wearing a hoody made me wonder if I would have nodded along and trusted Rivera enough to code his comments a certain way.  I am sure there is an audience that places its trust in Rivera and Fox News who would have taken his lazy and superficial, if not racist interpretation of news as truth and accepted it without pausing to determine if the Trayvon Martin death had required a closer reading yet.  

I would not have placed any trust in an entertainer of Rivera's tendencies, but it has given me pause about my awareness and the degree to which I am engaged in the news and the stories that unfold.  There was a time in my youth when I wanted to be able to follow a newspaper story from the very tiniest nugget of its beginning to its very end.  It is hard to determine when news stories begin and maybe I just settle for reading the paperback of it all after the story is a distant memory but I feel increasingly uncomfortable with my selectiveness in following the news.  There isn't much choice, however, is there?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Train Story 15: End of the Line?

With the beginning of spring, or any season for that matter, comes transition.  A new job and routine will commence on Wednesday and my daily commute east to Marlborough is no more.  I'm not quite sure how the 30-minute walk on 14th Street will nourish my eye or pen with fodder to communicate here.  I suspect that I'd only supply accounts of those violating the distracting driving laws or being rude from within the confines of the steel and glass carapaces they lug to work and back each day - not a lot of promise there.

Today my wife and I headed downtown for a few errands in the afternoon with our boy.  I ignored Thoreau's adage warning of enterprises requiring new clothes and bought a new windbreaker to help me dial down my reliance on my two well-worn fleece jackets and a yellow jacket of indeterminant, modern (and therefore apparently ideal) material that always renders me too cold or sweating as profusely as I would if I were running.

We were intent today to walk home, but decided to take the train to the end of 7th Avenue to save us a few steps.  We crammed aboard a train that was far more crowded than I would have expected for the two stops to the terminus at west end of downtown.  It was our first time with our son seated in his stroller to face strangers rather than ourselves and for the few minutes we were aboard his gaze caught a few eyes that widened into smiles at one of the expressions that he quite capably enchant us with.

We disembarked and came upon the fences that have cordoned off the area at the end of the 10th Street platform and the construction just a few feet away to connect the line with the West LRT that is 9 months away from completion - if you take the optimism of the project managers and city planners as gospel.  For a moment or so, the dead end puzzled us about how to get in the direction we wanted to go.  We thought there was a bit of back and forth with the rest of the crowd to get ourselves en route north but we ended up backtracking.  There is probably something symbolic about running into a dead end erected for the sake of progress and backtracking ever so slightly for the sake of making progress.

I'll keep my eyes open and find other things to write about, whether topical or incidental.  Other occasions will present themselves such as the elderly woman we ran into downtown.  She talked about how she bristled at her doctor's suggestion that she was in decline and suffering from, what was it again?  "Dementia?", I offered after she ran through Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  I will of course ride the train from time to time and, wherever I'm going, sit with a book or survey the other passengers to see what they up to and how they are living that particular moment of their day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Train Story 14: Where Ya From?

As I boarded into the train, I noticed an empty seat occupied by nothing more than a nylon raincoat zipped into its carrying pouch.  Its owner was slow to move it and I got a feeling that it was best not to sit next to him.  I chose to stand and strap hang on this night.

To little surprise, the man started into a loud harangue about something in Japanese.  Closing banks, merging banks or banks not using his favorite anime character on their cards... something about banks or perhaps the race for the American League wildcard.  I just hung on and looked around as others closed their eyes and meditated the noise away.  He continued on with his rant until the spotlight fell... on me.

And so he began, in Japanese.  “Ohayo gozaimasu, Good morning.”  Then, continuing in Japanese. Where are you from?  Are you American? 

I’d been in this routine with enough drunks on the train to know what he was saying, even in the most slurred of Japanese, which was easier to understand than their slurred drunken English.  (It's often reported socially that a few drinks help fluency in another language, so this guy clearly had too many - at least for that purpose.)  I glanced at him for a moment with a smirk and then turned away.  I stared at the floor and looked at the woman I was standing over.  Her face was infused with fear or disapproval.  There was a chance that she was embarassed by this drunken man accosting what may have been a gaijin just off the plane or barely escaping from his first day of teaching English.  Then again, she may have recognized that I was a veteran whose Japanese was good enough to answer this man with the sound teeth in his lower jaw spaced so that they would fit flush among the top teeth, forming a grungy, pseudomaniacal quasi-Jimmy Carter grin.  

The disapproving lady only lasted through to one more station as the man went on his nationality-seeking interrogation of me.  I took the lady’s vacated seat.  Fortunately, the ranter’s view was blocked partially by a new passenger reading his evening sports.  Unfortunately it was a tabloid rather than a broadsheet and my inquisitor ducked into view under the bottom edge of the page and continued what was turning into a looped recording.
“Russia?”
“Holland?”
“Poland?”
For some reason I must have been presenting a Slavic countenace that lead him to believe I had to be from Eastern Europe despite the Canadian flag pin attached to my backpack.
Suddenly he pointed his finger at me with an emphatic equivalent to “Eureka.” 
He repeated the finger gesture to stress it further, “Hungary!”
“Romania?”
His confidence continued climbing, “Bulgaria?”

I started thinking about giving him an answer upon my exit, either Canada or Antarctica.  I decided not to because the Japanese word for Antarctica had escaped me and I didn’t want him to come after to me double check on the answer.  As I thought about this, he continued ranting on.
“Czechoslovakia?”
“Albania?”

A rather dignified middle-aged man in a green suit, had put his book in his briefcase and started looking at me with a smirk.  I looked at the sports news and saw that Michael Johnson had set a world record in the 400m.
“Turkey?”
“America?”  

And he went through the same countries again, punctuating with some comment about how good he is or was at geography.

Finally, I reached my stop.  I hoped that I would be able to discreetly disappear behind the cover of the newspaper reader but he took my seat as soon as I left it.

As I stood before the door I saw the drunk’s face reflecting in the shining window.  His head rolled onto a shoulder in fatigue or defeat, but only for a moment.  The doors opened and while I stepped off I heard him ask the man sitting next to him, “Do you know Panasonic?”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Arctic Journal Excerpt: A Need for New Leadership

This is another excerpt from the Arctic journals I've been polishing up when time permits.  I posted a previous excerpt in January talking about the experience of being alone on the tundra.  As with that post, or any other for that matter, any comments would be welcome.

Ivujivik, Quebec is a remote community at the northernmost tip of Quebec.  It occasionally appears on a map of Canada or the world as a geographic placeholder to assert that people are living “up there” in a manner that may ignite the imagination to penetrate the possibilities that the name, latitude and remoteness evoke.  That mark on the map might linger in the imagination and raise questions about the livelihoods and well-being of the people who live there or simply raise the most fundamental questions about survival in an environment - treeless, windswept granite that stretches from the eye to the sky to sea occasionally marked with patches of sedges or dwarfed growth - that is so different from what is familiar.

The questions of survival and notions of harshness southerners might attribute to the Arctic have taken an existential rather than the living in the teeth of the elements tenor over the past few generations.  Today, Ivujivik is one of 14 communities in the necklace that follows the Quebec coast from the waters of James Bay and Hudson Bay clockwise through the Hudson Strait and on to Ungava Bay.  With a population of around 300 today, the questions of survival in Ivujivik refer to suicide rates, chronic unemployment and family abuse rather than the climate, the long winters and uncertainties about the next meal.  The once-nomadic people of Nunavik (as Arctic Quebec is known by its inhabitants) have been rendered sedentary by the southern institutions - government, organized religion, schools, trading posts - that have reshaped the life and culture of the Arctic peoples.  Today the Inuit of Ivujivik and its neighbouring villages grapple with the uncertain balance that needs to be struck between old and new, Inuit ways and southern or kalunait ways, the land and the village, and southern style schooling and traditional education.

From 1991 to 1993 I taught in Ivujivik and became the face of the kalunait presence and influence in their community.  I was 24 when I arrived and the perspective allowed me to learn a great deal about myself and develop into an adult far more quickly than I would have if I stayed in the south.  It gave me the opportunity to hone a perspective on life in their community that recognized that the struggle for survival was not exclusively the task of overcoming unwelcome obstacles to well-being and comfort but, more accurately, the pursuit of the spiritual reward that comes from engaging in the challenges that make life meaningful, treasured and worth celebrating.

My experience in Ivujivik is bookended by tragedies that are intrinsic to the desperate, too-familiar tropes of the Canadian aboriginal experience.  The challenges that face Inuit and First Nations’ communities have not changed and the tragedies recur beyond the purview of  “southern” Canadians unless the scale of damage and hardship reach the intensity cited in communities such as Davis Inlet, Attawapiskat, or Hobeema.  As long as the problems are merely chronic, rather than at their apogee of crisis, they remain as far from the collective conscience of Canadians as a distant relative’s dormant cancer.  The sustained, structurally entrenched low standard of living that has been endemic to the Canadian aboriginal experience provides the environment which allows problems of everyday life to metastasize into the crises that capture headlines, but leave Canadians tentative to react or respond because of the complexity of the issues and the uncertainty about how much history needs to be retraced for a workable representation of the issues.

The responses to the more newsworthy spasms of hardship in the aboriginal community  are too embedded in old notions of resolution to contribute to anything constructive.  The problems that exist in First Nations’ communities will take as long to identify and resolve as they have to entrench into the lifestyles of aboriginal peoples and engage them in the task of becoming full participants and partners in Canadian society.  The challenge is to determine if there has been any progress made and how long we have been making it.  If, and I emphasize if, the primary response to the problems in these communities has been occasions to empower certain First Nations’ people communities assert a certain authority over their brethren and with little more than the model of leadership - seemingly arbitrary, unaware of the importance of collaboration and indifferent to the intelligence and rights of the people within its domain - the Canadian government and its predecessors has exercised throughout our history.  Until they restore the model for leadership they thrived on prior to their contact with the Europeans or even a suitable modern substitute, dysfunctional First Nations’ communities will continue to struggle with problems that have been a result of indifferent, undemocratic leadership.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Train Stories 13: Full Moon Rising

I rarely notice the pull of the moon on the moods of men.  Today, however... oh yeah.  BIG TIME

I
The board indicates there are 10 minutes until the McKnight so I amble to the Indigo for a browse through the magazine rack.  As I scan the racks, a woman, white-haired and failing to pull off the rock star look with her 70s era sunglasses shares her revelations about the incredible article on willpower in this week's Time magazine.

"It's the article with the cupcake," said the fruitcake.

She raves about how it has changed her life in the few short days since she read it and how she has become conscious of how bad habits are associated with the back of the brain and the willpower associated with the front of her brain.

"It is great.  All those bad things... food, drinking, .... gambling..."


"Talking with strangers?" I muse to myself.

"You've got to read it."

She paces away and I wonder if someone had hired her to give me the hard sell on Time or the self-help book she has plucked off the shelf after reading the article.  Just when the discomfort of the encounter with the proselytizer ebbs away, she trots back, the frantic chattiness lapping on the shores of serenity one more time.

"What would be a good magazine for the Olympics?  You know... the sports and stuff..."

"I'd wait until July."

She leans in and stares at copies of The Hockey News.

"Sports Illustrated?  That's just swimsuits, right?"

For the fleetingest of moments I ponder snowballing her with the equivalent mania and raving about Jeremy Lin's rare claim to two consecutive covers and the dreaded SI Cover Curse they may have even hit Lin but is known to trounce the odd Olympian all but destined for gold but go on to blither about how it probably doesn't compare with the video game cover curse that so many athletes get struck by.

"I'd wait until July... maybe June."

"Really?"

"I'd wait until July."

Disappointment.

"There'd be books probably too."

Silence.

"July."
[Sigh]

II

I get back to the platform with only 7 minutes of my life lost.  I get aboard and watch a young couple with their child.  The dad stands the child on his lap.  The baby is the same age as mine, give or take a few weeks, and the coos and babbling are familiar.  I imagine the chance the parents have had to finally catch up on sleep and sanity and the comfort and wonder that comes from the progress that has been made in a scant 4 months.

A stop later a mother board with a stroller.  The boy is a two year old with a serious look on his drawn, dried milk mouth.  He looks around intently, processing so much more about every detail he sees and lingers on me for a while as I do on him.  I still can't imagine my own boy getting to this age.  Not yet, not in short order.  The future always seems further away than the past.  The boy rises out of his seat to take in the wonder of two goth-lite girls who've boarded with a black and white rabbit on a leash.  He is rapt at what he just glimpsed but can't confirm this phantasm for the forest of adult legs in his way.  He moves on to other things and presses his mouth against the glass of the door.  A foggy canvas to draw in emerges while his mother admonishes him by name for his self-inflicted exposure to countless contagious.  (Great name, by the way.)

III
I punch my ticket and trot past the busker in the station.  "My My Hey Hey" is played and I ponder the repertoires of buskers as I take the steps.  Another day without the escalator.  On the platform I pull out my Muhammad Ali biography and plow through the last 1/3 of the book and the epic brutality of the Thrilla in Manila while listening the James Howard Kunstler on my headphones.  A tall lumbering drunk lolls down the platform toward me and insists on conversation despite the headphones, the book and my unwillingness to contribute or respond.  Finally, I turn of the podcast to try to make the guy out.

"...and you know what God said to me?  Kill the devil."

"Excuse me," I respond in a terse tone precisely calibrated by lord knows what to keep from provoking him into a more dangerous state of his schizophrenia.  I step around him and he wanders down the platform, working on his Slurpee.

"Just gonna be one of those rides," I tell myself and close my eyes for a moment to find the ... willpower, perhaps... to get through the commute home and close a tough week.

The busker gets on and I risk sitting with him.  A missing string and the beginnings of Glen Hansard erosion of the guitar's body are earnest and reassuring.

"Great book," he says of the Ali bio.

"Great man," I respond.  I'm not exactly sold on the book but I'm never as calibrated with my choice of words as I am with my tone of voice.

And we're off.  He's read the book and I recommend Norman Mailer's The Fight in response and documentarians I'd seen about The Thrilla and Ali's fight with Larry Holmes.  We marvel at Ali's life and acknowledge that there was so much I missed of the man's life and that I knew him first and for much too long as a boxer and little more.  Once again, I missed enough of the 60s to preserve the decade's mystique and be entranced by it.  It is a tribute to Ali that his legacy has outlived the sport that it sprung from.  Apart from his exploits almost two generations ago, I have zero interest in boxing.  It's beyond me.  But for these few moments on a train with a seatmate chosen by fate I sound informed and familiar with the sweet science and even passionate about it thanks to this epic hero of the past century.


Train Story 12: Resilience

Another train story from my time in Japan.  I've tried to find some way that one of these moments in someway is a tribute to the nation and its people as it marks the anniversary of the 3/11/11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.  I hope you find this as close a fit as I do.


She was beautiful.  Not in a conventional way, granted.  Not in the apparent empirical that some guys imply when asking about a new girlfriend.  But definitely not in an ironic way, with a snicker hidden behind the hand.  She was, in the sense that we all are, but that quaint aphorism is the very last of my intensions.  Her hands were an uncertain, scarred complexity of arthritic, aged-looking fingers.  Her mouth a soft snarl of lips and overlapping teeth, a juncture of malleable or missing bone.  I pull a hand down my chin, firmer than hers, to think about the softness that hers portrays.
   
It is not pity that I feel.  The churn in my stomach is not one of visceral sympathy.  It is more like the anxiety in the presence of celebrity.  There is a beauty to her, her eyes like the cloud-muffled sunset on the horizon behind her, on the crest of Arashiyama.  The light asserting across the horizon and through patches of cloud is like the dawn of an eternal force, the life force that pushes shoots through the ground, through rock, pushes air through lungs for that first unfamiliar breath and the last one one more time.  

I turn away before I catch myself staring.  Another passengers magazine has end-of-the-world boldface about 103 centimetre I-cups and I ponder that flawed, limited empirical.  I scan the other passengers on the train and hope for one more glimpse of her face and her eyes.  They finally turn and I see in them a defiance and the strength.  A champion defending its crown like a birthright denied.  Will she stay like that?  Will her tangled fingers hold a man’s?  A child's?  Will anyone else see the beauty in those eyes, that determined face?  Are her parents the only other ones who know that secret?  

Have I?

With these thoughts, in the presence of her bravery to go on each day as lonely as she might be, I wonder if I have the strength to aspire to my birthright as she does to hers.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Train Story 11: Reflections on a Pastel Gray Morning

We're all facing east.  Despite the early light and the promise of warmth there is little enthusiasm for this hint of light.  Right in front of me, his hair dry and unkempt or uncombed, a young man in a blue argyle pattern hoodie peruses the used car ads for an alternative.  Up the aisle, a woman has planted her nose in the gothic world of Diana Gabaldon.  The turbaned Sikh men to my right sit quietly in their solitudes, the need or urge to recount or recollect other times and places is muted.

It seems only days ago that this ride was in the dark and the lightened skies would be treasured.  Perhaps in another month or so when this light has been lost again and inches back into our mornings it will be greeted, if not with enthusiasm then at least recognition.  The faintest, almost over-exposed, pastels accent the grey morning sky that hangs behind the bare trees that line the river and Memorial Drive.  If they were asked to rate the morning, perhaps they call this a two star dawn, humble compared to spectacles like the blood red clouds on the cover of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.  I never did finish that...

I'm daydreamy or drowsy and I stare out the window and watch my reflection collide with the percussive blur of light poles, trees and oncoming semis, while the fluorescent lights of the train ceiling and the platforms run in their surreal parallels.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Train Story 10: The Unstarted Lesson


Another recollection of times gone by in Japan.

Friday night.  I don’t get the car I would usually take.  I rush to the closest available door before the train leaves the station and routines of obsessive convenience are eroded by the prime directive of catch the damn train.  I usually get the sixth car, last door, which opens right at the steps when the train arrives at my station in 42 minutes time.  Obsessive... convenience.

I’m in luck, there’s a seat available.  It is a bit of squeeze a make baby steps in reverse and direct my butt into the seat without disturbing anyone.  I feel like I should have been beeping as I made my way into the seat.  My attention falls upon a young couple sitting across from me.  He is a budding salaryman and he rests his wrist against her bare thigh as he attributes epic seriousness to his small talk.

Out of the corner of my left eye, my attention is stolen away by the sight of the letters CNN.  I look on, without bothering with discretion or attempts to feign attention on something else.  The young woman next to me flips through the pages of an English text, with scant indications of the subject itself.  The only English are the words “listening practice” and the familiar Japanese kanji for English.  I start to frame criticisms of the book, no blowing off of dust required, and make silent mental assault on the fact that there isn't any English when she turns the page.  

There are four of five tapescripts on the page and a slight tilt of my head shows that she is wearing earphones and actually listening to an English tape. She rewinds the tape for repeated listenings of the passage she can’t grasp.  To no avail.  

She gives a nod or a shrug of frustration and starts rooting through her bag with her free hand.  She deftly digs her way down to the dictionary, (I notice a chocolate as she makes her way down and feel a little craving) removes the slipcase and starts leafing through the pages.  I decide to look at the tapescript to figure out what word she is searching for and my eyes fall upon “upheaval.”  

She thumbs through C and I try to scan her text and the dictionary for the word she needs to define.  I notice the word "continent," and leave her alone with it.  It doesn't require my expertise.  Moving onto the Bs for broadly and it just doesn't work in the context it's in: "Ten thousand years ago the continents look broadly like they do today?" Broadly?  She reads the definition of "broadly" we probably scowl in unison; her in frustration and me in aggravation.  Before I can give the assurance and explanation that would unknit her brow, the train arrives at my stop and I rise to disembark to the 3-car length walk to the stairs and beyond to my bike and leave that blight of Japanese-English festering as the train heads south through the night.