Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Train Story 8: The Curler

I transfer to the Crowfoot train and wonder if my watch is wrong or defied by some wrinkle in time that leaves the train near empty - a quiet 11pm load at cusp of rush hour.  Two stops later, the train is full and my view obscured.  Among the few passengers aboard when I got on was an older gentleman, retired, sitting with his curling gear and duffle bag.  The red head of his brush looms like a sentinel over the seated passengers.  The curling crutch strapped to his bag hints that he would never settle for a wobbly glide out of the hack and that the sight of a cornbroom would evoke a nostalgic smile and a vicarious ache in the arms and back rather than the bemused furrow of a newbie's forehead.

His ends today were loosely scored with laughs and a careful beer rather than fought with Brier-level vigor.  Measurements, if they were needed, were a mere "take it" flop of the hand to keep everyone in it for all ten ends.  Still the sharpness of shots was eagerly pursued; an assurance that muscles, intent and memory remain in synch with one another.  This regular communion with friends and rhythms keeps the cold burn of the pebble familiar to the touch and the granite of kinship near at hand for the assurance it provides for the unknown number of winters ahead.  He looks ahead and basks in the late February light that may not signal winter's end but assures us all that it has been domesticated for another year and a sense of reward or satisfaction that we rarely know with the ending of summer.

Monday, February 27, 2012

High School Shootings Aren't Going Away

Once again a shooting has occurred at an American high school.  This time in a suburb of Cleveland.  As with past high school shootings there will be a visitation to the various speaking points that have become well-worn with each of these incidents.  Gun control will be have its 24 hour life cycle beginning at panacea, progressing to necessary evil and then ultimately - and ironically - threat to the constitutional freedom of the American people.  The intensity of the discussion beyond Cleveland may be a mere measure of the death toll rather than the effort to grapple constructively with the roots causes of a problem that is too frequent to call isolated.

There has already been the visit to the Facebook page of the suspect and the scouring for signs of the building motivation that lead to the shooting.  Early suggestions are that bullying is a factor that lead to the shooting but that may be proven wrong as the incident is unpacked and addressed.  IF the cause of this is bullying, the first impulse is to identify how social media amplified it to the extent that the young gunman was unable to cope with the stress of this abuse.

While the breadth and intensity of cyber-bullying may be a new challenge that young people have to deal with, it is perhaps equally significant that young people do not have less of the resources that provided solace and a source of resilience in the past.  Whether it is the support of friends who have been gained through real interactions with one another, the comfort and escape of reading or other pursuits, it is probably evident that this generation of youth, as plugged in as they are, do not have the social circle or the range of interests that equip them with the resources of hope and support that they need to look beyond high school and be assured that there is indeed something to life beyond the school yard and gym shower politics that seem so bleak to them.

In his 1994 book A is for Ox, educator Barry Sanders draws a direct link between the decline in literacy and the increased probability of violence among American youth.  His discussion seemed at times a bit alarmist but given the number of school shootings that have occurred in the United States over the last 15 years, there is probably reason for readers to take Sanders' theory more seriously.  As reading and physical play take a backseat to television and video games, children have fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in dialogue and interaction.  Just as televisions do not respond to their audiences, video games training their players to respond to the stimuli they present and follow the pattern dictated or prescribed by the game.

There is little opportunity in either medium to solve problems creatively or constructively and neither contribute to the formation of self that needs to take place in order for a person to get through problems that - in this case and others - motivated drastic responses.  This is not an argument that violence on TV and in video games begets violence.  The argument is that these mediums narrow the opportunities for audiences to be actively involved in, as Sanders puts it, "defin[ing] and control[ling] the conditions... for herself or himself."  Children grow up without constant exposure through play and other social opportunities to test the randomness of their environments and discovery the extent to which they can influence the situations they are in and the control they can have over their destiny without pulling a trigger.

Train Story 7: A Different Route

I walk through a dormant food court with my fresh book of tickets for the week.  Two octogenarians shout across the space about the temperatures as they settle into their respective cups of Timothy's or A&W coffee to leaf through the paper until their tardy confreres beat back the weather to join them.  Their weather updates evaporate over an abyss of empty food court chair-and-table ensembles.

The cold dawn provokes me to grab the first bus rather than wait for the train.  The drive is precarious through the cookie dough snow clogging the asphalt and I need to be more aware of the ride.  Icy hills and dodging traffic cause me to slide a bit more in my seat than I'd like.  The to and fro of passengers down the aisle and the percussive blur of light poles and vanity plates stimulates and even overwhelms the eye.

A passenger asks the driver about a transfer in the northeast.  It seems like a challenge in the weather and the remote location but the driver pulls a response off the top of his head and assures her that it isn't a  great inconvenience to her despite the -20 temps.  The familiarity or friendliness sets the tones for the sun-drenched ride east.

The word urchin has fallen into disuse, but could be excavated.  A junior or senior high student trudges on in red Hello Kitty pyjama bottoms and pulls back the teddy-bear-eared hoodie that is one of the many layers of warmth and disappears down the aisle.  A graffiti-patterned back pack in her wake.  I've seen her before on the train but the coincidence of intersecting on this route plants her in my thoughts and recalls other occasions when the chipped nail polish, blank face or huddled posture belie the vulnerability of a child who needs a moment to catch her breath and trust someone long enough to find the path to figuring it out.

We disembark from the bus and head to the station to go separate directions: I to the office and she to the crucible of school and shared adolescence.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Voter Suppression Too Strictly Defined by a Spineless Media

As February draws to a close, a controversy has unfolded regarding allegations of crank calls initiated by companies associated with the Conservative Party of Canada during the spring 2011 federal election.  A token young Conservative staff, Michael Sona, took one for the team despite suggestions that, while not entirely innocent, was likely not a key figure in the robodialing incidents that occurred in a number of ridings during the May 2, 2011 election.  The full slate of revelations regarding this may only be beginning, but it is already another occasion to draw comparisons between Stephen Harper and Richard Nixon and draw on some of the more colourful vocabulary that described the US Republicans' efforts during the 1972 presidential election.

The problem with the budding coverage of the robodialing is that this is the most airtime the phrase "voter suppression" has had despite the evidence that has accumulated over the years that negative political advertising is indeed a device to suppress voter turnout.  Voter suppression is not merely a matter of stealing ballot boxes or sizing up voters' tendencies by their profile and telling them their at the wrong polling station.  Negative advertising is a more nefarious method of voter suppression but is rarely identified as such.

I do not know who is more naive, myself for wanting to rail against negative advertising as a means for suppressing voter turnout or those who accept it as valuable and acceptable information during a political campaign.

This aspect of campaigning is often soft-pedaled by the pundits who instead of citing the negative ads for what they are, a means of turning undecided voters from the electoral process entirely rather than an effort to edify the political dialogue with insight on the issues that have become central to that particular election.  Instead of labeling these ads what they are, a black-eye to the political process and the party that paid for them and more importantly an anti-democratic ploy that is motivated by the quest for power or the regard of politics as sport where the parties and their members are the winners and losers and the voters and grandchildren they aspire to serve mere meat for platitudes that the victors promptly dispense with.

Instead of calling the negative ads and other conduct of politicians for what they are, election talk often turns to the subject of a party having the ground team to get out their vote or cut through the negativity of opposing ads to keep the party faithful motivated enough to bother on election day.

Throughout the Harper administration, many in the media have hesitated to take issue with the conduct of the Conservative Party and scrutinize their behaviour or compare it with appropriate past cases of conduct by past governments.  The media occasionally heeds the call for a critical assessment of the government's actions and their consequences.  There was criticism of the conduct of the police and the spending in Muskoka during the G8 and G20 embarrassment in 2010, but the media did not pursue this as deeply as they could have.  Most issues that ought to be more thoroughly investigated get a brief airing without the depth of scrutiny that the scale of some scandals ought to require.  There was once a time when journalists investigated news matters and reported what they found at the expense of risk something negative, not malicious or untruthful (like negative ads), but merely negative or potentially embarrassing to the key figure.  Today, there seems to be less and less of that courage in the media, which affords little more than a cursory look at a potential issue and lives or dies on the whims of the attention span of their audiences.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Train Story 6: Pixies

The earlier dawn does not bring much life to this Friday morning.  The unexpected chill casts a stolid silence on this morning's gathering of straphangers.  The Metros are quickly leafed through and discarded despite the weekend padding and I suspect the passage of the eye over iPad or Kindle monitors is a bit slower than it was on Monday.  "Just get through the day and start the weekend," would be the internal mantra if people had the motivation to string the words together.

Two preschool sisters - all blonde hair, tutus and blue, flower-spangled rubber boots - gambol on and trudge down the aisle and away from their mother, who utters her mommy-terse, "Next stop guys" and remains by the door she entered at.  The girls keep their balance as their energy courses through them.  I'm not sure if they are flaunting their Barbie and Disney Fairy backpacks or reveling in the sights of the other passengers and the city scene beyond the train's fogged up windows.  They make their exchanges in a language that is both English and clearly their own and the dawn heightens a little further.  I turn to the African gentleman across from me to exchange our amused smiles and I ponder the patina of his ritual scars as the girls chase after their mother at the next stop and brighten the day beyond.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tell Vic Everything (or the Reality of Government by Adolescents)

As Winter 2012 moves along, Canada's Conservative government is starting to encounter heat from a range of sources other than the currently short-handed official opposition.  Allegations of dirty tactics during the past election have surfaced along with news of further scrutiny from Elections Canada and the RCMP.  The government's betrothal to the F35 stealth jet program is facing further evidence that it has been as sound a decision as Brittney Spears' first or second betrothals.  Throw in Jason Kenney's staged citizenship ceremony for Sun TV, the lacks of transparency surrounding cuts to Veterans Affairs and increased anxiety about the anticipated severity of cuts to other government departments and the Conservatives' are getting blemishes that they may not have anticipated.

For the most part, the Conservatives have used their majority to rule with the blithe, calculated indifference to opposition, argument or reason that Stephen Harper personified so numbingly during the leadership debates during the 2011 election.  Despite the evidence that their omnibus crime bill is an expensive, misproportioned response to our diminishing crime problem that will fail to deliver the support and comfort for victims that the Conservatives continue to advertise.

Throughout the interval of minority government that Canada experienced from the demise of the Paul Martin Liberals to the final ascension of Harper's Conservatives last spring, there has been talk about the freedom that a majority government would have to rule without having to deal with the challenges and brokering that would have to take place during minority rule or, heaven forbid, something as apparently complex and - according to Harper - threatening as a coalition.

Given the freedom of majority rule, the Harper Conservatives have continued there full-time campaign approach to governing as has been demonstrated by their efforts to undermine or unseat Montreal Liberal Irwin Cotler and misuse the levers of government like a bunch of adolescent school boys eager to thumb their noses at reason rather than exercising that freedom to take a deeper look at the challenges of governing and leading the country.  I am not going to pretend that the Conservatives are the first to abuse powers, but they ought to have spared voters the pious abuse of the previous government for something they were abuses they were eager to match, if not exceed.

There is little interest in peeling back the layers and complexities of the issues that they are trying to address with policy and when there has been any threat of complexity challenging them to actually put together a comprehensive response to Canada's dilemmas, they behave more like the feral boys in Lord of the Flies hellbent on throttling Piggy than like a government that acknowledges the uncertain balance that needs to be struck amidst the uncertain times the Conservatives exploited to such effect when touting their own masterful management of the Canadian economy, government spending and fiscal restraint.

The comparison to adolescents gets its most traction when assessing the conduct of Minister of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who tabled a bill giving the government more freedom to conduct online surveillance.  When facing opposition and public outcry that lead to the renewed disclosure of (already documented and reported) embarrassing aspects about his private life.  Toews' arguments started with his specious posture that if you were opposed to the bill, you were on the side of child pornographers.  Eventually he coughed up the ministerial equivalent of 'my dog ate my homework' when he said that he had not read all of the bill and was surprised by its content.

There is little in our constitution to reign in a majority government and in most instances, Canadians have been content to bear with the decisions and adventures that governments may choose to indulge themselves in.  When a government conducts itself in a manner that seems to be as impulsive and tactical as the current Conservative government, with its fondness for gamesmanship rather than informed, sound decision-making there is little to take comfort in.

Hopefully the electorate will be as responsive and fast-acting in the future as it was in response to Vic Toews' misadventure in compromising privacy rights.

Train Story 5: Readings

The two of us pause in deference to the passive-aggressive glares and squared-shoulders of those disembarking.  He's not the type to trudge on regardless.  It's something you can tell at a glance. 

He towers over everyone.  Long, blonde dreads, bees-waxed and resembling alders stripped of their bark hang over his shoulders and his back pack.  We sit across from one another and pull out our books.  His selection is Hitchens' God is not Great, which makes me ponder the feathery heft of my sports biography.  I had a heftier volume to peruse last week but my current choice would not make the tiny Filipina cower in doubt about her crucifix and her devotion as the couple to my left bristle for space for their walker and wheelchair as the passengers boarding divert their ambitions to less convenient seats away from the door.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Train Story 4: Dishevelled

Saturday afternoon and the lad and I are riding the rails.  I maneuver my shrouded scion's stroller into a space and another man vacates for me and stumbles into another seat, bumping into a man who stirs from his exhaustion and says, "Be careful, you might wake me."  I watch and try to determine if he was being ironic and exceptionally self-aware or could only let his most terse notions seep through the alcoholic haze he was submersed in.

I watch the man as his lolls loosely from his shoulders.  He's bookended and perhaps even supported by the man who just bumped into him and a cameraman who balances a large tripod between his feet and the encased camera on his lap while he stares at his phone.

The details I would attribute to this character seem to be dispersed to everyone else around him.  The bandaged index finger, secured in gauze by two lines of electric tape.  A black inside-out sock with is patina of cotton fibre accented by a beige layer of plaster or dirt or some other fine detritus.  The frayed pant cuffs with a striated line of salt or residue from snow that soaked and dried away so many weeks ago.  None of these belong to him, but rather to men who seem to be better off, men who are with their balloon-bearing sons or strollers of their own.  I haven't even added in the frequent fellow traveller who so much resembles the friend I am just waiting to completely let himself go and is now trying to strike up conversation with the young women opposite him.  His non-sequiturs make them concerned for their safety and the space they want for themselves.

At first there is the possibility that this only a one station cameo.  He rises and gropes through his fog to the door and then the platform at Stampede Erlton.  He pauses and contemplates the surroundings and returns to take the seat next to me and slumps again.

The signs of decay on this man are not as telltale as the ones everyone else bears without concern on a Saturday afternoon.  The only hints the rest of us would carry without a thought are the nubbled fatigue of the "green" bag he is conceivably carrying his life in and the work-creased hands that are gripping his paper coffee cup and the handrail that stretches to the C-train ceiling.

He resumes his repose of exhaustion next to me and I see his jaw stiffened and retracted in the rictus of a sob long-suffocated by pride and the will to go on, somewhere.  He rises again to disembark downtown, uncertain of direction or intent.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Train Story 3: Break-up

He boards, Blackberry in hand and leans out the door as if to hold the door for someone, but ducks back in before the disembodied complaint comes over the loudspeaker.

I don't know if it's premonition or a failure of mind, but I ponder distracted driving laws and how they ought to apply to this quiet group hug, which I've deferred to by keeping my book away.  No need to jab people with the corners of my paperback spine or splay my elbows to serve my soon-to-be-bespectacled eyes.

There are two numbers on his display screen and he selects one.  When the call begins he says he's tired of it and wants all contact between them stopped.  The venom intrudes on my morning distraction of Ben Folds' "Boxing" as the expletives and dismissive sniffs of structured wrath fill the gaps in tone between the bass line and the white-boy falsetto.  Eventually I hear a mention of "4 o'clock" and assume contact will be restored for one more last hurrah despite the expletive-italicized stand a few seconds before.  I might have misheard but I didn't worry too much.  Outside of one gentleman who interrupted his purusal of twitter to get this half of the conversation straight no one bats an eye.  The call ends and he dials his second number to give a report on what is unfolding and asserts his intentions or wishes while the doors open.  He pushes back through the exiting crowd and resumes his conversation. Privacy and anonymity find elastic evanescence here as he disappears into the slumbering crowd with his drama unfolding or his fringe fest performance fading into the distance, while commuters muse about the glow of the golden full-moon and our threat of future moon bases.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Puzzling Posing at CIC

The furor over the use of bureaucrats to pose as new citizens may be dying down quite quickly, but a longer digestion of the incident needs to occur before the public swallows it whole and says its collective, "no biggie" and waits for the next fumble of the Conservative government.  There will be questions about the use of bureaucratic staff in this manner and further to that questions about how staff at Citizenship and Immigration Canada determined who would be suitable performers in the role of "new Canadian," but I will not speculate about the workplace dynamic that exists in government ministries when everyone is well aware of the budget cuts that loom, especially when Minister Jason Kenney has a history of using the resources of his staff for partisan purposes as was the case last spring when a Conservative Party fundraising letter was published on department letterhead.

The nuances of this incident are quite varied.  There has been the hair-splitting in identifying this as a renewal of the oath of citizenship to contrast it from Sun News Network's mistaken that the participants were finally getting their citizenship.  It would be interesting to determine what kind of pressure the 6 CIC staffers received when being asked to perform this role and determine what other performances staff at the agency may in the future back asked to perform as the "face of the ministry."  Can they expect job descriptions to be rewritten and will the government lend its favour to a chummy HR consulting firm to revise these job descriptions and others to ensure that similar pliancy of bureaucratic staff becomes de rigeur for staff at other agencies and departments?

The timing of it cannot be more ironic.  Falling on Groundhog Day, which is punctuated by a "here we go again," Bill Murray homage eye-roll the rest of the year, and on the eve of the great advertising spectacle that is Super Bowl Sunday, the whole incident begs the question, "What is the government selling us?"  Citizenship is not exactly like Coca-Cola or the Chevrolet Volt, in that it would disappear from our consciousness if we are not being told insistently about it presence and value.  Right?


For some reason Sun News and CIC felt that this was something worth staging on a Sun News set rather than sending a news crew to cover at an actual event.  I hope that there is some attempt to discern how a staged or faked event actually qualifies as something to provide content for a news network.  (A question, I'm sure that would call for another round of hairsplitting with a chaser or two of specious pedantry.  Perhaps it was too inconvenient to actually send Sun News staff out to cover news rather than pontificate from its desks.  Perhaps the government and its mouthpiece do not want to leave to Tim Horton's to define citizenship or the philosophy exam stumper about Canadian identity.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Train Story 2: To the Airport

By platform light, I keep my thumb in the chapter on Jeff Lebowski and the Dalai Lama.  The morning is mild enough for me to remove a glove for a better turn of the page and I glance down the platform to check the time for the McKnight.  One minute.

She faces me and asks, "Good book?"

She repeats herself in response to my puzzled face.  I couldn't hear the first time over my ear buds.

"It is," I respond.  I'd rather say that I read all the time and would like to get through the last 20 pages of this one today but I don't know if that is worth the effort of saying or listening to.

The train pulls to a stop and she maneuvers her tow-along luggage behind her and takes the seat in front of me.  I get the company of two immigrant security guards who are heading to their day jobs in the pre-dawn.  They ponder their copies of the commuter paper and the ailing national paper that is giving away free copies to pump up its subscription numbers.

As the train leaves downtown and heads north, she gets the room to sprawl out on her seat.  It is not a teenage slump to occupy space in the 2011 sense of occupy.  Actually the energy of anticipation thrums through her as she heads to the airport.  Of course.  The bag.  The random conversation between strangers opening up threads of self and conversation normally hidden.  The layers of down and hoodie ready to be dispensed with one at a time if the destination allows.  Her right arm is over the back of her seat as if around a companion, except for the tight bend in the wrist that lets her hold on.  Does she perform this gesture or does the gesture inhabit her and set the tone for the day and the flight ahead.

I arrive at my stop and hurdle over the drowsy security guards, avoiding their congregating knees and disturbing the one moment of slumber that is not begrudged them today.  I head to work while she holds her arm around the back of the empty seat and anticipates her flight and travel itself.