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.

Uganda, Apathy and the Complacency of Contentment

Over the last 24 hours (March 6-7, 2012) there has been an intriguing range of trending topics on Twitter related to Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army and one Joseph Kony.  As someone  involved with a charitable organization committed to serving and educating the children who have been victimized by Kony and the LRA it is incredibly heartening to see the spotlight cast on him in such a swift and dramatic way.  Such a sudden interest in an issue and a criminal who has been under the radar for so long is a strong indication of untapped potential that individuals have in bringing attention - and hopefully action and positive outcomes - to an issue that has thrived in the shadows of apathy.  I look forward to seeing how this unfolds in the weeks and months ahead.

It is surprising to see how the response to Kony's conduct have gone viral to the extent that it has and is a reminder of how our attention can be captured when the cause is right.  It is also another occasion where it seems that social media has left the mainstream in its dust.  Word of mouth seems to be more capable of commanding our attention and commitment than the canned coverage of issues that we get during the nightly newscast or scan and dispose of in our papers.  In such cases, the sense is that a covered issue, such as the robocalls scandal that is unfolding in Canada at the moment, is well on its way to being resolved since it is being covered.  The flaw in that assumption, however, is that it places a trust in others - whether the media, our politicians or those we believe represent our interests - without giving any of those groups or individuals the guidance and direction that our input provides or scrutinizing those organizations to assure ourselves of their integrity.

In our content, affluent (yes, still) lives, we have become complacent and much more tolerant of mediocrity, whether it is mediocrity of performance, intent, morality, information, rationale or anything else.  It is just that sort of tolerance and indifference that allows individuals like Joseph Kony to continue their atrocities for 20 years and also his opposition to conduct itself which questionable strategies and motives.  While today, millions of people are rallying to this cause or this forgotten or neglected news story, there have been 20 years of collective apathy allowing this man to thrive for as long as he has.  Apathy is often disguised with the cop-out that someone else is "on it" and that our energies or attention are not required.  Often the consequences, as the Kony story illustrates, are far more severe than we can imagine.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Train Story 9: Hiroshima, 1996

My first train stories were written while I was in Japan from 1995-2003.  They were observational in intention, but being a foreigner in Japan often caused the experiences to be a bit more interactive than I had intended.  The following is the very first of them all, an encounter with a salaryman on his way home during my first pilgrimage to Hiroshima.  The hour or so I sat with him on this trip is one of my most indelible memories of Japan and, of Hiroshima as well.


If nothing else, I've been well-treated to the hospitality and generosity of one man.  His name is already slipping from my mind: Tanaka, I think.  He boarded the train at Mihara, tie loosened for the night and sat across from me for the hour from his office to home, or so I assume.  I never asked him much about himself.  His English was pretty good and he was eager to practice and from the moment he took his seat he set about using or perhaps restoring his dwindling energies of the day as he set out to help me and prepare me for my destination.

He dug out a brochure on special tickets on Japan Rail that might be useful and economical for me and after he extracted the information about home and my work here he leafed through my Lonely Planet and let me know where I ought to go in Hiroshima, Miyajima and even in Kyoto, which I still haven't scoured enough over the last 8 months.  His familiarity with the book told me he'd done this regularly on his ride home.

He was Holmesian in his deductions about me and comprehensive in the advice he provided, right down to the foreign food shop that I would have to visit if I wished to replenish my supply of Pringles during my stay.  When we got of the train in Hiroshima, he did not rush home or rid himself of me but shepherded me around the tram station to get me on the right train and oriented to the stop I'd need to disembark from.  He even booked my hotel for me.

In the most memorable and fitting turn of phrase, he told me that the Peace Museum would "shake my heart" - not the first verb that would come to mind and for a moment I was given to an old impulse to correct it, but I still had no idea what word would fit this experience that had anticipated for so long.  I let the words tumble in my thoughts and deferred correction until I had the chance to experience the Peace Museum.  The next day, as I trod the floor of the museum with the deliberate care I had cultivated in the temples of Kyoto, I realized that Mr. Tanaka's words could not have been more precise and perfect.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Kids' Movies: Cross-Promotion Over Story?

There are times when I'm sitting in the living room with my infant son in my lap and ponder the things that we will do together and the things that I'll enjoy again or in entirely different way because I'm introducing him to it.  The Princess Bride is one of those things and I could spill out a long list of parable and subversion that would include Bugs Bunny, and The Iron Giant to name a few.

I have already started reading him Dr. Seuss, something I only enjoyed myself when I babysat, and The Little Prince.  All I want with him right now is the time together and to introduce him to the worlds that can unfold when the pages of a book are opened to the light.  Whether it is movies, books or music I'm primed and eager to share all of this with him.  When I read to him now, there is a rapt attention to the distinct sounds and rhythms of read rather than conversational English.  When I'm leafing through more adult fare with him on my lap he regularly paws at the pages of this fascinating object.  I'm hoping that this ritual or component of father-son time evolves and that my little boy develops a fondness for story and I will treasure each question that indicates his growing sophistication in receiving and giving stories in our world.

The most recent book I bought for my son was Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, a purchase motivated by Chris Turner's reference to it in his book The Geography of Hope rather than the movie adaptation that is being sprung on movie-goers today.  Turner's book identifies manageable achievable efforts that can improve our stewardship of the environment and Seuss' tale is a reminder of our venal impulses and their consequences.  As I read the story to my son, I enjoy Seuss' strengths of whimsy, rhyme and cadence but also ponder the post-Silent Spring era that it was written in.

Forty years have passed since The Lorax was written and Hollywood has been plumbing Seuss' canon for fodder for nearly 15 years.  The filmmakers have had mixed results in converting Seuss few hundred words of story into sufficient story to create a feature-length motion picture.  The visual motifs have been fertile territory that has defined and contain the filmmakers' efforts both on screen and in the marketing of the movie.  As has been the case ever since Star Wars, movies that have the potential to appeal to younger audiences are  considered complete when the full range of cross-promotional opportunities are established and fully exploited. Pixar's Cars, the creative C-minus of their catalogue, got the sequel treatment in large part because of its successful promotional collaborations and sale of merchandise.  The corporate (rather than film) adaptation of The Lorax is replete with the requisite children's meal - at IHOP in this case - and the website for the movie devotes a page to its nearly a dozen sponsors.  Some of those sponsors are green companies but the point of The Lorax - in book form - is to stem our greed rather than to buy ourselves out of ecology-oriented guilt.  I'm sure Dr. Seuss would have had a field day writing a book about the adaptation of this book.

The sad thing about this is that Hollywood seems less and less interested in story or capable of creating it.  The liberties that the filmmakers took to pad Seuss' prose into an 86-minute film and leaven the dark themes and palette of the book are to be expected when making something that we are going to immerse our children in.  As I observe the delivery of this version of the film, however, I cannot help but think that something is missing from this version of the story and that Hollywood has devoted its machinery to the type of marketing that McDonald's was excoriated for until they retired Ronald McDonald and his menagerie.  The insistence on so much cross promotion on a movie that was so anticonsumerist in its original form is testament to how tone-deaf the film industry can be.

Using an experience that parents long to share with their children as an opportunity to pry open the child's consumer impulses is a bait and switch that many decide to plug their nose and get through.  Fewer of us though will bother with this if Hollywood fails to meet our longing for a story.