Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Fading of Prairie Birdsong – a book review

Herriot, Trevor. Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 2009

ISBN 978-1-55468-038-2

259 pages

A few years ago, I noted the relative scarcity of bees in our garden and in researching possible causes for this, came to realize that there was something afflicting bees generally. It was worrisome. Bees and wasps are instrumental in facilitating fertilization of blossoms and we had cherry shrubs and trees, tomato plants and peas, all in need of a medium for the distribution of pollen if we were to have fruit in the fall.

We are too gradually coming to the realization that much can be learned through the observation of the “little things” in our environment that we normally take for granted, that seem somewhat insignificant in daily commerce. Take grassland birds: the western meadowlark, the piping plover, the burrowing owl, Swainson’s hawk, Sprague’s pipit. These and others were birds whose nesting habitat was and is the native grasslands of the north central US and the Canadian prairie. These and others are in severe decline, some facing extinction.

Many readers will recognize the name of the author of Grass, Sky, Song—Trevor Herriot—from the CBC program, Birdline, where he is the resident bird expert. Herriot has a cabin near Indian Head, his base for pursuing an enthusiasm for prairie-dwelling flora and fauna, more particularly, the birds whose presence there predates settlement, predates by thousands of years even the coming of aboriginals across the Bering Bridge from Asia. In his book, Herriot takes us back to a time before the plow and forward to a prairie that could be if and when we agree that earth-care is in the interest of both bird welfare and people welfare. For Herriot, the signposts telling us where we’ve been, where we are and where we could be—as prairie people—either have birds perched upon them, or else they’re conspicuous by their absence.

Farmers may find Herriot’s views unsettling. He points to evidence that the very chemicals that make it possible to combat grasshoppers, flea beetles, weeds, etc. are accumulating poisons that harm all life; the telling evidence implicit in the decline of the bird population, even where their grassland habitats are being preserved. Like the watcher of the canary in the mine, we are cautioned to take note of the horned lark on the prairie; this bird’s demise is a warning to us.

There are plenty of people still taking the stance that the changes heralded by extinctions, for instance, are “so what?” non-issues. We’ve just passed the Copenhagen conference on climate change, an event that underlined the fact that the developed world tends to recognize hazards only if they are measurable with an economic yardstick. So what if the ice cap melts? What a boon that will be to shipping. So what if McCown’s longspur’s song is never heard again? What (economic) good can this prairie bird do anyone anyway? Herriot’s frustration with the denial mentality peeks out through what is generally an optimistic outlook. There are signs that more and more people are beginning to realize that conservation is not only important, it’s vital to our long-term survival.

Trevor Herriot is a skilled and sensitive writer. He is also a very sensitive man, an aspect that shines through when he writes about walks across the prairie with his daughter Maia and his wife’s struggles to overcome the breast cancer demon. In its totality, Grass, Sky, Song turns out to be much more than a “bird book;” it’s an appeal to all of us to walk more sensitively, more knowledgeably across the land that sustains us.

Grass, Sky, Song was nominated for the Governor General’s award for non-fiction and won the Saskatchewan Book Awards citations for Best Regina Book for 2009 as well as the Best Non-fiction Book for Saskatchewan in 2009.

copyright 2009 - Geo. Epp

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Christ in our Christmas

Merry Christmas, friends, and I mean it. Celebrate! Be merry!

Why? Because we’ve passed the winter solstice successfully and the sun is coming back home—as it were—to the Northern Hemisphere, and that’s a pretty good indication that we may experience another spring soon!

The air is, of course, full of the admonitions to “keep Christ in Christmas,” or “put Christ back into Christmas,” and so on, but as loudly as anyone can shout that from the rooftops, our cultural world will continue to celebrate “Christmas” as a family holiday, a feasting time, a time for gift-giving, readings from Isaiah and Luke and the playing of “Christmas” CDs and old movie classics like Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” Plus—of course—the ubiquitous trees with lights, the wreaths and the mad, stress-driven last minute shopping.

Adding to all this a sideways nod to the babe in the manger may well be a case of too little, too late, too guilt-driven—like phoning grandma on December 26th and wishing her a happy Christmas there in the nursing home in Timbuktu.

Here’s a thought. The Christmas holiday is a cultural habit. It’s a much-needed celebration in the midst of the coldest, bleakest phase of the earth’s cycles, when we fragile humans have to put out our best just to survive and can barely remember green grass and flowers. Let it be a celebration of the fact that the days are lengthening now and hope is abroad again.

I don’t quite get the “Put Christ back into Christmas” admonition, as if it were possible to take him out, put him in, or control his whereabouts in any way whatsoever. Far better to “put him” where he’d rather be: a wise and guiding partner in the way we live our lives every day of the year. Were that to be our stance, Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving, as well as every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, would have Christ and his gospel implicit at its core, minus the phoney and futile admonitions to (at least) feel guilty if we celebrate in any way excepting on our knees.

So enjoy your families, relish the anticipation of gifts unopened under the tree, give thanks to your creator for the good things (turkey and sage dressing, for instance) that his earth has provided for you, do something to make the turn of the season a hopeful moment for someone else.

Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

And when you read, “Put Christ back into Christmas,” think, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.” It’s impossible to take Christ out of any part of a life lived by this tenet.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Advent Sunday morning with hate mail

Click on the image to enlarge

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation column runs in the local paper unless there is ample material from local sources to crowd it off the editorial page. If you don’t know, the CTF is a think-tank-cum-lobby group whose focus is taxes we have to pay to keep this country running. More specifically, their goal appears to be a country where individuals are not required to contribute to the general welfare of the country, or at least as little as that individual can get away with.

A few weeks ago, their columnist made the argument that climate change was a hoax being perpetrated on the public, and that no one would be able to get elected if they espoused policies recommended by the prognosticators of climate disaster looming just over the horizon.

I couldn’t leave this unchallenged, and wrote a letter to the editor—a mild missive—in which I suggested that for Harper (and by implication, other Alberta politicians) this might be the literal case but that overall, Canadians are beginning to get the argument that we will either have to begin making changes now, or be forced to make them soon. It might, in fact, be difficult to get elected unless politicians show us a grasp of this problem and are in favour of taking our collective heads out of the sand.

The paper included my address, for some reason, and I got a hand printed, anonymous letter in the mail a few days later. According to its author, I am an idiot espousing a socialist viewpoint and since socialism and communism are the same thing, I am now a communist, as is every NDP politician in this country. He calls me “Comrad (sic) Epp” throughout.

I would challenge him to a debate on the issue of climate change, but I don’t know who he is, and anyway, he would likely dismiss me because “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” and “it’s a sad day when the editor of the paper would print such garbage.”

Well he may be right when he says I don’t know what I’m talking about re: climate change. Everything about climate change is best-guess stuff, but what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from people who can spell “comrade.” It’s unnerving to think that people like my anonymous stone-thrower might be able to get together and elect a government.

Apparently, we've still got work to do.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Saskatchewan Book Awards

I went to the Saskatchewan Book Awards in Regina Saturday with few expectations, except that I knew Rudy Wiebe would be the guest speaker, the food at the Conexus Art Centre would be great and maybe, just maybe, Off Road would win the "best first book" prize for which I'd been short listed. Well it did, and I won enough cash to buy another batch of books for retailing. Actually, sales have been going fairly well and I had another first a few days ago . . . my first royalty check!

For any of you who haven't seen Off Road, it's available at, McNally Robinsons, etc. Check out my website at and order it from there directly if you've a mind. Or email me at and I'll mail it to you.

Thanks to all my friends who have read the book and provided me with comments.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Churches, tables and craft sales

Decoupage table

Tile tabletop

Decoupage tabletop

Some time ago, I posted a photo of a tile tabletop my wife and I had made. Since then, I've determined to participate in a craft sale members of my church are staging on November 21st as a fundraiser for church construction. I rescued two rickety tables from the local thrift store. I removed the embedded photograph from the smaller one, fixed the legs and tiled an impressionist flower-design top for it.

The second project needed to do with church, I thought. and I hit upon the idea of using a decoupage process I’d read about to transfer photos to a hard surface. I sketched the original Eigenheim Mennonite Church—constructed of logs in 1896—and used photographs of the subsequent generations of the EMC structures. The decoupage process didn’t go smoothly and the pictures ended up with some stretching and bulging. I took the amateur’s way out; using decoupage glue, I put wrinkles in the rest of the table top as well, did a great deal of repainting and varnishing and called it done. I didn’t feel too bad about it because the flaws may remind us that all three churches pictured on the tabletop were built by amateur carpenters and were replete with instances where one would want to say—in retrospect—“Boy! We could have done that better!”

In any case, labouring over the decoupage project gave me plenty of thinking time about the meaning of church buildings, particularly since we claim that the church is the people and not the stones and timbers that house their communal activities. We’re building a new one, and in our group there is considerable doubt that the expense is justified in a needy world. And yet, buildings are more than buildings, as evidenced by the nostalgia that is evoked by the thought that a building we have come to think of as HOME will have to be moved away or demolished.

The verse on the table is, of course, the ubiquitous cornerstone verse of Mennonite Church Canada. “No one can lay any other foundation than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 3:11).” Paul wrote this to the Corinthian church as a reminder not to stray from the fundamentals (foundation) he had laid down and on which they were “building” a still-fledgling church. The use of the metaphor of constructing a building as a model for constructing a faith community is apt. In Eigenheim, each successive community worked at the building of a foundation, walls and a roof to house their communal activity and to form a centre for their faith. The temple is not the church, but we are human, made of clay, delicate vessels, and the lack of a temple might well mean the dissolution of a community that was meant to be.

Monday, November 02, 2009

On Poppies, flags and such.

Hallowe’en is gone and the trick-or-treaters learned again that nature doth not love beggars; it snowed pretty much all day on the 31st October and by evening, the streets of Rosthern were skating canals.

Remembrance Day—November 11—is almost upon us. It was my duty to deliver the sermon in church on the peace topic on Sunday morning, so I did. In summary, what I said was that soldiers go abroad into extremely risky situations in the interest of military victory, so why is it so hard for us to get up the conviction and the courage to fight for peace? Maybe if there were a “peace army” uniform, marching, some catchy phrase to simplify it (like the army’s “defending freedom”) young people would line up to join. Christian Peacemaker Teams has a model that could define what peace armies would do. They stand in solidarity with those threatened by violence and share their risks. Unarmed, they demonstrate that there are alternatives to the use of force, threats, and physical violence. 100,000 unarmed peace soldiers with hammers and saws, spades and axes could possibly do more to bring stability to Afghanistan than NATO forces can.

Oh, I know that the very idea would be ridiculed by those who have decided that peaceniks are naïve and that human reconciliation and cooperation across ideologies, ethnic differences and political systems is a pipe dream. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. In any case, it’s not been given a fair trial recently, except possibly in cases like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, where dialogue, reconciliation and the granting of amnesties replaced the pattern of retribution so ubiquitous historically.

I watched the World Series game between the Phillies and the Yankees last night and was again amazed how patriotism rides on the coattails of faith (or is it the other way ‘round??) The National Anthem preceded the game; in the 7th inning stretch, a navy man in uniform sang “God Bless America, land of the free” while the baseball fans and players all stood with their hands over their hearts.

I imagined a host of peace army recruits watching a ball game and singing: “We are people of God’s peace as a new creation. Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration. Sons and daughters of the Lord, serving one another, a new covenant of peace binds us all together.” Now there’s an anthem for which I would gladly hold my hand over my heart!

Brethren and Sistren; we have a lot to do. Let’s roll up our sleeves.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Camel, rope, beam--which doesn't belong?

Bowling Alley - Rosthern October 15, 2009
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10: 25).” That’s one of the metaphors of Jesus that my class will be pondering this morning. And so I’ve read what I could about the possible interpretations of this enigmatic comparison and have decided that the Aramaic word gml, which can mean a rope, a beam or a camel, should probably have been translated rope. “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Evangelical commentators seem to prefer the idea that a gate in the Jerusalem wall would be closed at night but a smaller gate could provide access to man and camel, if the camel were unloaded of its goods first. This theory has been largely discredited.

One of my points this morning will be that one should never overwork a metaphor. Jesus had just invited a wealthy man to get rid of the burden of his money and follow him if he wanted to “inherit eternal life.” The man was heartbroken; he couldn’t bring himself to part with his hard-earned hoard and he walked away. The core of Jesus camel/rope analogy is that money can exert a formidable force on a person. That may be all he was trying to say.

But there’s another angle, I guess. Jack Benny once said jokingly: “If I can’t take it with me, I ain’t goin’!” Whatever realm may exist after death would obviously welcome any newcomer without his/her money. The cash stays behind for the children to squabble over. Call it the unloading of the camel, if you like.

Being a somewhat-anal English teacher, I see the relationship between a rope and a thread and I want to insist that a camel through a needle’s eye is a bad metaphor, whereas a rope through a needle’s eye is superb. I leave it to you to decide whether a camel or a rope is more appropriate to your thinking. (Some have said that a camel is more easily passed through a needle’s eye if it’s lightly greased—a metaphor-overworking joke.)

Actually, it makes little difference. Struggle as you might, passing a camel, a rope or a beam through a needle’s eye are all equally impossible. Point taken. Money (along with a thousand other obsessions: addictions, fame, comfort, status, etc., etc.) has the potential for exerting tenacious holds on people, often preventing them from pursuing nobler objectives.

It still leaves the question of what is meant by needle in this context (2100 years ago) or by Kingdom of God or by pass.

Maybe I should just stay home this morning.

P.S. I led the class through the discussion and it went well, I think. We are agreed that North American Christians (that’s us) are all “rich rulers,” at least by the Two-thirds World’s standard. Sell off our goods and donate the proceeds to the poor? I don’t think so.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Life around the Lemon Tree - a book review

Frenchman River near Val Marie
At the heart of Sandy Tolan’s, The Lemon Tree lies the preponderant question of Palestine: where is justice and fairness when one person’s safety and livelihood must be won at the expense of another, and/or the other way ‘round. Bashir grew up in a house in Ramla; in 1949, Zionist advances into the area of Lydda and Ramla resulted in thousands of Palestinians being driven from their homes and orchards to take refuge in the West Bank and Gaza. A Jewish family immigrating from Bulgaria was given the right to select a new home in Ramla, and it was Bashir’s home they chose. Dalia, a daughter in this Jewish family ended up becoming friends with Bashir, but in one of their conversations, Bashir says:

"The Nazis killed the Jews. And we hate them. But why should we pay for what they did? Our people welcomed the Jewish people during the Ottoman Empire. They came to us running away from the Europeans and we welcomed them with all that we had. We took care of them. But now, because you want to live in a safe place, other people live in pain. If we take your family, for example. You came running from another place. Where should you stay? In a house that is owned by someone else? Will you take the house from them? And the owners—us—should leave the house and go to another place? Is it justice that we should be expelled from our cities, our villages, our streets? We have history here—Lydda, Haifa, Jaffa, al-Ramla. Many Jews who came here believed they were a people without land going to a land without people. That is ignoring the indigenous people of this land. … Zionism did this to you, not just to the Palestinians. (Tolan, Sandy. The Lemon Tree. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006. p. 160-161)."

It seems to me that the Israeli theft of large portions of Palestine will be shown historically to have been one of the major scandals of the 20th Century, extending into the 21st. Sandy Tolan has researched and documented carefully the events that began early in the last century, leading to the situation we have today: an armed and dangerous standoff with Israel continuing to solidify its annexation of the region, unbending in its refusal to recognize the Palestinians' right to return to illegally-appropriated property.

Tolan does what most other writers on the subject have not been able to do. He has given the Palestinian conflict a human face. He tells the story of two families—one Palestinian, one Jewish—whose destinies cross paths, and he tells it tenderly and sensitively. It’s a tale that rises above the dreary plain of politics and worn-out creeds, and brings to readers the heart of the matter. Tolan not only tells what it’s like, he conveys what it feels like to the people to whom this entire conflict really matters.

Tolan sums up his goals in writing The Lemon Tree in his “Author’s Note:” “By juxtaposing and joining the histories of two families . . . and placing them in the larger context of the days’ events, I hope to help build an understanding of the reality and the history of two people on the same land.”

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Read on, Macduff!

Can you read this waffle iron?
Some people read voraciously, some read a little, and some read virtually not-at-all. (You may quote me on this profundity if you wish.) Some of us habitual readers pompously consider reading to be virtuous, and non-reading to be a partner of laziness, ignorance, intellectual lethargy, apathy, etc.

Agnes and I just assumed the administrative role at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern. One of the events we’re preparing for is the reading-out-loud of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in December. Will people come? We wonder and are not sure. Will people be found who can do the text justice? When they read, of course, what people hear will virtually be the voice of Charles Dickens telling a story through the medium of print. The words will be the words he chose, placed in the order he considered appropriate and most effective.

Dickens was good at reading aloud, apparently. People would fill auditoriums to hear him read excerpts from his novels.
Anne Enright is a good storyteller as well, although I've no idea how well she reads--aloud. Her short story, “What You Want” in the collection, Yesterday’s Weather, appealed to me more than any short story I’d read for years. Enright’s stories are most often told through the eyes of female narrators who are wives and mothers. Generally, listening to the stories of the regrets, the longings of suburban motherhood doesn’t grab me; Enright succeeds in capturing my attention, and I don't mind listening to her, attentively and without interruption.

Reading, seems to me, represents an eagerness--or at least a willingness--to absorb wisdom and knowledge in one unique way. When you tell a story in print, the listener doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t insist on interposing an alternate viewpoint although he may well have one. Try that at coffee time!

I continue to insist that the ability to read well and the habit of reading much renders people more fit to face a chaotic world. But I guess that’s only true if the choice of reading material is informed, and that’s a whole other issue. Who will tell the masses to read “A” and use “B” to line their birdcages? Ay, there’s the rub!
On the other hand, if you ask me I’ll tell you. Read Charles Dickens and Anne Enright, and next week . . ..

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some people dont right pretty good?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am reading (scratch “am,” replace with “was”) a book by James R. Brayshaw called Satan: Christianity’s Other God. It may be a somewhat-anal observation, but should a reader really trust the scholarship of a writer who tends to constantly split his infinitives? Or who scatters punctuation as if it came from a saltshaker, placing commas, where they, don’t belong and omitting them where they do like here? Who allows the following sentence to go to print with his name attached? “Even the writer of the book, in their admission that they believe Satan has superhuman powers like God; agree that their “Satan” cannot create? (p.57) (Errors: non-agreement in number of the pronoun their with the subject writer; misuse of the semicolon, question mark after what is obviously a declarative sentence, missing comma.)

I’ve given up on the exercise, particularly since the case of Satan being an allegorical construct can be made in a few paragraphs and this book runs to 500 pages and has the depressing affix on the cover indicating that it is still only “Volume I”. (I was unable to find any record of a “Volume II.”) Even more, the sloppy writing and the lack of skilled editing simply made me think that this was an author whose credentials were suspect, like a person who expounds on his knowledge of hockey while referring to the scoring of a goal as a “slam dunk.”

I put down the book for good when I read Brayshaw’s declaration that the days in the Genesis creation story are literal, 24-hour days, supporting this contention with the dubious evidence that each day had an evening and a morning, so how could it be anything but a literal day?!? Brayshaw’s understanding of allegory and metaphor seems to be very selective, at best.

What I didn’t read anywhere was an admission that many of the same arguments used for the denial of the existence of a literal Satan can be used to argue for an allegorical God. The whole world of Scripture interpretation seems often to hang on the distinction between historical and allegorical “truth,” and Brayshaw (like pretty much every Sunday School teacher in the land) hasn’t mastered a consistent control of this fundamental religious conundrum.

He is right when he says that escaping the myth of a literal Satan is a freeing experience; what he fails to do is take the next logical step, namely to recognize that an allegorical approach to scriptures (or to Shakespeare, for that matter) is foundational to making peace with our spiritual doubts, fears and misunderstandings. Scripture as story, not as history—in a manner of speaking.

Story has an extraordinary power to illuminate, open doors for people alluded to by Jesus when he said, “he that has ears to hear, let him hear:” a clear call to human intellect to see the parables, for instance, as springboards to an expanding world of spiritual insight.

I know. I have spent far too much unnecessary time in the whale’s belly.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Cosmic Sunday Morning


It’s Sunday morning; my town is still asleep. The yellow leaves that blew into the front yard yesterday are wet with overnight rain; I briefly considered—then rejected—the option of starting up the furnace. Too much like admitting that summer is over.

I’ve got a book on my desk that I chanced upon in the library yesterday. It’s Satan: Christianity’s Other God by James R. Brayshaw. It purports to show that “scholars have imposed their belief in a cosmic Satan onto passages that have nothing to say about such an entity” and that “A journey through the Scriptures and history reveals that God did not create the Satan of Christianity and that Satan didn’t exist in the theology of the people of God until they spent time among cultures steeped in mythology.” (This latter refers—I take it—to the sojourn in Egypt and more importantly, to the exile and the subsequent influence of Babylonian and Persian culture and religion.) So much I’ve gleaned from the Preface, Introduction and the book jacket. I’d better read it before I say more about its contents.

I expect that even the most adamant evangelical preachers must have had some intuition that the image of a powerful, supernatural “Satan” with his evil angels/demons is antithetical to that other important Judeo/Christian imperative, namely that there is but one God, not two, not ten. Just one.

This is heavy stuff for a Sunday morning. In Eigenheim Mennonite Church, a group of us will gather at 10:00 to discuss the motives and methods behind Nehemiah’s determination to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. (I don’t expect the possibility that Ezra and Nehemiah had been influenced by the Persians to see good and evil as the work of two opposing gods will come up.) More important is the observation that we are all beholden to courageous people with the energy and the foresight to lead us in REBUILDING that which is crumbling and broken down, burnt like the gates of Jerusalem in 500 BC. Courageous leadership is not easy to find, especially leadership with the fortitude to tackle rebuilding, whether it be of physical structures, lives, or religious concepts that may have led us astray. Rebuilding takes guts.

But in questions of understandings that reach back into antiquity—like the Satan imagery—it’s a bit like refusing to turn on the furnace because it would be admitting that one has given up on summer.

May the light of the one, single God shine on you this day.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What's Art? What's craft? Does it matter?

The Station Arts did its annual Harvest Days last weekend. Typically, craft/art people display their work, work at their projects on-site and answer questions; a few people will sell honey, garden stepping stones, etc. and the day will be capped off by a concert, this time by the Saskatunes, three men and one woman in harmony, accompanying themselves on a variety of instruments. They're very good. They're real artists. Or is singing others people's songs a craft. I'm so confused.

This morning, I did the final touch up on a tile table top that Agnes and I created (photos above). We've almost mastered a craft, I think, although I used the wrong grout and it doesn't look as polished as it should. I excused it by pretending that it was part of a planned "rustic look." If there's such a thing as "accidental art," I don't suppose it's such a big stretch to "accidental craft," something like spilling paint on a floor, liking the effect and letting your visitors believe it was a result of artistic talent.

Red Green claims to be an expert on art. His methods are simple. "If I like it, it's not art!" he says. It's a bit like this expressed wisdom on diet, health and weight control: "If it tastes good, spit it out!"

I can't claim to recognize true art when I see it. But I do recognize Art when I see him. My usual greeting is, "Hi, Art," which always sounds to me like, "High art." When I greet my sister with, "Hi, Jean," I'm aware that it might sound like a reminder to clean her fingernails and wash up. I think we need to do away with the "Hi" greeting altogether. (Are you out there, Art and Jean?)

Quite a few people are apologizing to me for missing my book launch in Rosthern, and some for having to miss the reading at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon on Thursday, September 24 at 7:30 p.m. A friend at coffee missed that first "happening" completely, and said to me in some amazement, "I didn't know you'd been authorized?!?" A good crowd did come out and were gracious in their evaluations of the evening. I was warmed and very grateful. It was a good turnout considering that it's harvest time, half the crop is still in the field, the wheat's not ready and it rained all day yesterday. Farmers are anxious.

Have a great day. Do some art . . . or craft. It's good for the soul.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

42 Minutes that (did, did not) change the world

Grand Canyon Denizens; The telescope array in New Mexico (where part of the movie, Contact was filmed. Click to enlarge.)

Today, Prime Minister Harper will meet with President Obama for a scheduled 42 minutes. 42 Minutes!?! Considering that Canadians buy more products from the US and sell more energy, wood, grain, meat, iron, nickel, etc., etc. to the US than any other country, 42 minutes strikes me as a bit chintzy. What does the Prime Minister of Luxembourg get when he calls? 1 Minute, 27 seconds? Frank McKenna said on TV last night that the meetings with Congress members are more important than the few minutes with the president. They could hardly be less important if the 42 minutes is a measure to go by.

Which brings up the question of US-Canadian relationships generally, doesn’t it? Our tourist industry is suffering (I’m not sure they know what true suffering is) because Americans now need to be carrying a valid passport TO GET BACK INTO THEIR OWN COUNTRY. I sincerely doubt that Obama can reverse this madness; the signs of a more liberal approach to policy are there, but the bones still have no meat. In the health care insurance debate, we see again the degree to which the fierce insistence on minimal government involvement in the marketplace has been engrained in the population. One would have thought that the current recession would have provided some insight into the consequences of a greed/deregulation regime.

The right wing, conservative thinkers (I use this word advisedly) in the world today are powerful, and it’s understandable why this would be so. Their thinking is simplistic; they need only hold one or two pieces of conventional wisdom in their heads to feel righteous. In the US, the two bits of “truth” need only be “it’s a free country so get the hell out of my face,” and “foreigners are trying to get me, so don’t mess with my guns,” to frame a disastrous public policy like we see around security matters today.

Since the turn of the century, about 360,000 people have been killed on US highways, 4,500,000 have died of cancer and 2,993 died as a result of terrorist acts. For the fiscal year 2008-2009, the Bush administration requested 145.2 billion dollars for the Global War on Terror, but only 70.4 Billion for the entire budget of the Department of Health and Human Services. These comparisons shouldn’t be taken as the complete picture, but they do give an indication of the preponderance of security consciousness in the US, out of all proportion to the reality.

I wonder if Harper will point this out to Obama and to Congress. I actually doubt it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Take Action

Grasslands National Park: top-bottom - rabbit, lichen, Frenchman River, 70-Mile Butte.

We spent the better part of the long weekend exploring the Grasslands National Park near Val Marie, Saskatchewan. You should go there. It’s a phenomenal glimpse into the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the prairies after the ice age and before mankind. Enough said; discover it for yourself, preferably on a hot day in summer when the desert positively hums with crickets and the clicking of grasshopper wings.

We stayed in the Convent Country Inn (, an old brick building in which the Sisters of the Assumption of Mary lived and taught school until the end of that era. The food was great, the hosts gracious and the room was a tad warm, but it was a great place to spend the nights. From our room (8; the best room in the Inn we were assured) we could see the Catholic Church and a billboard: “Abortion stops a beating heart; take action.” We wondered as we read the faded words on the weathered billboard what action we were being urged to take. Should we join in the pro-life movement and demonstrate? Should we write to our MP and tell him we’d like to see abortion re-criminalized? Should we refrain from aborting our unexpected pregnancies and urge our family and community to do likewise? What action were we being urged to take?

Everything about abortion is tragic, from the first awareness of an inappropriate, possibly shameful, pregnancy to the contemplation of the probing of instruments and the expulsion of human tissue and finally, to the guilt of knowing that but for this decision, a person would exist who now doesn’t. No one—I’m guessing—is pro-abortion. Pro-choice is a question of who decides what is to be done when unexpected pregnancy presents itself. Should it be the state? Should it be the individuals involved? Should it be the church?

I can only think of one action I can appropriately take in this regard, and that is to support efforts to prevent inappropriate pregnancy. And what form might that take? Education is good, properly done. People need to know how to prevent pregnancy safely. Availability of the apparatuses of prevention is good; I would rather see easily-obtained birth-control pills than abortions, than children being raised by children, or unwanted and resented children growing up in an environment that lacks nurturance. Abstinence is good if it doesn’t become a religion; doing without coitus doesn’t actually cause acne.

What does all this have to do with Grasslands? You’d have to ask the people who put up the billboard, I guess. But the quiet, “natural” unfolding of life in this wilderness said something to me about the tranquility of creation . . . as opposed to the anxieties we humans create, even about as natural a thing as reproduction.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Twenty Commandments

Thanks to Marg Epp of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut for contributing these photos of autumn in the Arctic

The August 11, 2009 edition of Christian Century (page 9) includes a listing of “New Ten Commandments.” Credit is given to Peter K. Stevenson & Stephen I. Wright in Preaching for the Atonement (Westminster, John Knox). The ultimate source is said to be a poll by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, not a revelation on Mt. Sinai! There’s no indication regarding who was polled, or the question to which they were responding, but I imagine it was something like, “If God were to hand down Ten Commandments for our day, what would they be?”

I found the list fascinating enough to reproduce here:

1) Treat others as you would have them treat you.
2) Take responsibility for your actions.
3) Do not kill.
4) Be honest.
5) Do not steal.
6) Protect and nurture children.
7) Protect the environment.
8) Look after the vulnerable.
9) Never be violent.
10) Protect your family.

Graven images, covetousness, adultery, Sabbath observance don’t appear in this list, and neither does the honouring of father and mother; here father and mother are urged to protect and nourish their children. Interesting flip, what?

I’m not certain why there are 10 commandments Biblically, and not 7 or 12. The thought comes to mind, though, that those commandments attributed to Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai might be the 10 most important of all the many commandments we find in the Pentateuch.

Notably missing in the Christian Century list is any reference to God, whereas at the top of the original 10 is the recognition that there is but one God and that we are to worship none other than Yahweh. It may be a sign of the times that ethics today begin and end with a description of what constitutes morality in social interaction, and not what constitutes obedience to God.

On the other hand, when we were children, our behaviour was checked by the rules laid down for us and enforced by parents and teachers, but as we matured, it wasn’t those rules that guided us anymore, but rather our individual commitment to the principles to which those rules pointed.

If the law really is a schoolmaster, I would happily see the CC list renumbered 11 – 20 and added to the Moses list. What about you?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Just three guys with guns, full of piss and vinegar

( and

You know the story: three guys stop at a pond in Saskatchewan and for a lark, take pot shots at the swimming ducks and ducklings. One of them records the action with his digital camera set on “movie” and, for some reason, posts the event on You Tube. With millions of witnesses, they are quickly and thoroughly busted and given heavy fines, are featured on the front page of the StarPhoenix and admit through eager media that it had been a bit of “stupid fun.”

This fall, men in camouflage suits will spend hundreds of dollars on equipment, travel, etc. for the thrill of sitting around the same pond and blasting migrating ducks out of the air with shotguns. That will win nods of approval because hunting seasons and licences will have made this massacre “legal,” and the shooters in this case will be responsible “sportsmen,” not young men having a bit of fun.

So here’s a quiz. The “general public” and the humane societies were so outraged by the actions of the three young men at Cudworth because:

a) their stupidity in putting an illegal act on You Tube puts the general sanity of the human race in doubt,
b) ducks on the water (and particularly ducklings) make this shooting an unfair contest as opposed to firing at them from a blind as they fly overhead,
c) deep down, we find the slaughter of animals abhorrent, especially when we’re confronted visually with the actual event, or
d) we’re jealous of the three men because we’re frustrated and have been taught to curb our natural instinct to get relief by exercising the “patience,hell! I’m gonna kill me something!” prerogative.

And while we’re at it, let’s ponder this scenario. A group of men are sitting in an ocean-side restaurant eating freshly caught lobster when they’re excitedly informed that their help is needed to rescue a beached dolphin just below the restaurant. They rush out and with great effort, return the hapless creature to deeper water. They’re back before their lobster is cold and they finish their meal, lean back and revel in their humanitarian achievement.

Upshot: if you want sympathy, you’d better be a good-looking mammal, not an ugly marine crustacean. And if a mammal, try not to be a steer, pig or sheep; better a kitten, puppy or pony (canned Dalmatian would fill us with the same revulsion we displayed for the three men at the pond).

Finally, I applaud the progress we’ve made in protecting humans and animals from needless suffering. I’m told that abusive men often practice their need-to-inflict-pain (sadism) on animals before graduating to fellow humans. Action against cruelty to animals, neglect of animal needs, etc. may be a small step toward a society in which the blatant hypocrisies inherent in “legal sport hunting” may become a cruelty of the past.

(I really enjoyed the cedar-plank salmon at a friend’s place last weekend. I admit it. I don’t want to think about it. Let’s change the subject.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why am I so afraid? -a book review

Delillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985

326 pages
ISBN 0 14 00.7702 2

Jack Gladney teaches Hitler Studies at a small college in Blacksmith, USA. His best friend, Murray, plays Bildad the Shuhite to Gladney’s Job. Murray is a nominal Jew and is hoping to be the guru in an Elvis Presley Studies program. Gladney’s first son is “Heinrich,” so named because being a specialist in Hitler, Gladney is working with little success at being competent in German. Heinrich has a headful of technical information about everything from the chemical effluents that pervade the modern world to pop culture, which he shares like Elihu with his father and with anyone who will listen. He shouldn’t be confused with Hitler’s Himmler, overseer of the Holocaust.

White light is light that contains all the colours of the spectrum and could be called “all light.” So it is with “white noise.”

White noise is a type of noise that is produced by combining sounds of all different frequencies together. If you took all of the imaginable tones that a human can hear and combined them together, you would have white noise. (

The white noise pervading Jack Gladney’s world is the sum of the pervasive cultural “hums” characterizing America in the 1980’s. Their sources are cued to the reader in the titles of the three parts of the novel: “Waves and Radiation,” “The Airborne, Toxic Event” and “Dylarama.” In part, these themes reflect the Cold War with its threat of death dealt from above and the multiplication of radio signals that pass through us, surround us and can’t be defended against. The upshot of Jack Gladney’s immersion in the white noise of his time is a pervasive, growing fear of death. It creeps up on him (like the Holocaust crept up on the Jews of Europe?) and becomes central to his life, as phobias tend to do.

Ergo, Part Three: “Dylarama.” Jack’s wife has found a possible remedy for the disease that afflicts her, the disease that results from prolonged exposure to the white noise. And it is—you guessed it—a pill. She “sells her soul to the devil” to get it, but discovers that it’s ineffective in quelling her fears. The principle of a prescription remedy, however, begins to preoccupy Jack; it becomes his obsession. There must be a medication to mitigate the fear that grips him. It is this obsession to which the action of the novel has been leading—a sad reflection on American culture asserts that we have become so preoccupied with developing a chemical solution to all our ills that we are blind to causes, to prevention. Our wants have become our needs.

DeLillo’s technique for rendering the pervasion of white noise is to randomize the “noises” that bombard us. Radios and TVs are on constantly, and the narrator (Jack; first person) attends briefly to random bits and pieces that zing through his consciousness. Short, intrusive bits of soap commercials, news items, song lyrics. Coffee conversations wander into realms of the absurd and the obscure. The effect is to render him deficient in controlling the “input” to which he is subject. He becomes a complete victim of the “white noise.”

Jack’s wife, Babette (do consider the symbolism in all of DeLillo’s names and events) is a runner, not surprisingly. Her daughter is obsessed with her mother’s lack of attention to sunscreen, but Babette has a theory about this:

“The worst rays are direct,” Babette said. “This means the faster a person is moving, the more likely she is to receive only partial hits, glancing rays, deflections . . . It’s all a corporate tie-in,” Babette said in summary. “The sunscreen, the marketing, the fear, the disease. You can’t have one without the other.”

So, was skin cancer invented as a marketing ploy by the manufacturers of sunscreen? This may represent the pertinent cultural question of the age in America. The aftermath of 911 makes DeLillo sound prophetic; fear is—in America—a marketing device. Commerce defines culture. Anything goes, as long as it sells.

White Noise may not have become the watershed novel that the cover tributes promised, but it remains one of the best renderings of the mood and effects of America’s decline into corporate consumerism. I daresay, readers today will find it more “to the point” than the readers of 1984 when it first appeared.

Read it.

And, by the way, it’s hilarious.

Friday, July 31, 2009

C'mon! Put down your dukes!

Fern in Tufa.
A friend asked recently if I thought Jews were on average more intelligent than other people. I said, “No, I don't think so. But I think they've developed cultural habits that help them adapt more easily to those areas of endeavour by which we commonly measure success. (I didn't specify theatre, film, writing, the communications industry, business, etc. because this friend would know what I was talking about.)

I felt a bit proud because I thought I'd invented a new sociological term: Cultural Habit. Turns out others have used it. A blog I Googled using that term spoke about Japanese noodle-slurping and Chinese sidewalk-spitting as cultural habits. I would think the whole matter might be somewhat deeper, as for instance the observation that Asian students will persist in a struggle with a thorny problem for about three times as long as the typical Western student. They are “rice cultures,” you see, used to working hard and long to produce a modest crop, these Asians. (I can't locate the book that makes this case right now; if you know what it is, please clue us all in in the Shout Box at the top left-hand corner of this blog. I think the title had “Outliers” in it.) Persistence and patience may be cultural habits passed down genetically, educationally, through unconscious modeling, religious training or a combination of all four.

My culture endowed me with some habits for which I'm grateful. I take no pleasure in weapons, uniforms, martial arts, or anything that smacks of physical combat. I consider that propensity to be a cultural habit, engrained through a combination of religious indoctrination, modeling, education and observation.

The flip-side of this habit is not so pretty; in my culture, confrontation is so stressful that virtually no one knows how to deal with it when it arises. The standard response to an insult, for instance, is withdrawal. What usually follows the conclusion of a disagreement is that the loser rages and sulks, privately, and avoids those on the other side. It's passive aggression. Congenitally shy of engaging in confrontation, we turn our backs on one another. I have known people in whom this cultural habit is so engrained that they have carried an unresolved grudge for decades without ever pursuing a reconciliation. The pettiness of some of these grudges confounds understanding.

According to psychologist Katherine Horney, passive aggression is “a strategy to alleviate anxiety (” But so is punching someone in the mouth when insulted. The problem with a passive-aggressive cultural habit is that it saps enormous energy from family and/or community relationships to the point where even one or a few people possessing this personality disorder can render a family or community dysfunctional.

Overt aggression is certainly a serious problem in any culture. It's not clear that a pacifist cultural habit that substitutes passive aggression for overt aggression is a step upward.

I may have a passive-aggressive personality disorder. I confess that I often fight with the temptation to avoid, withdraw, brood, stew when things don't go well, to undermine the winners in more subtle ways than “healthy” personalities do.

But I can't help it; it's a cultural habit. Isn't it? I sure hope so!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Humans are: a) Gods, b) highly evolved vegetation, c) swine, d) none of the above

The view from Helen's apartment - January 26, 2009

I was traveling to and from the landfill yesterday, discarding scraps of lumber and accumulated sawdust and garbage, and listening with one ear to Sheila Rogers’ interview with some person whose name I didn’t get because the conversation took longer than the garbage run. His points—as far as I could gather—included that:
1) we humans pretend to be in conscientious control of our environment, responsible caretakers of the earth, when actually, we are raping and pillaging the earth like rampaging morons, and that as a result,
2) life on earth will eventually (maybe shortly) discard us and life will go on without us so that,
3) the earth and its other inhabitants will be happy to see us go.

In 1920, poet Sara Teasdale wrote:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,

And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war,

not one will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn

Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Ray Bradbury based a short story called “There will Come Soft Rains”on Teasdale’s poem, a story in which “mankind perishe[s] utterly” in a nuclear war. A recent TV documentary explored the restricted area around Chernobyl, and quite astoundingly discovered that animal and vegetable life was thriving there; the abandoned animals had gone feral and were doing well despite the high levels of radiation in the food chain.

The Biblical record tells us that the Children of Israel repeatedly strayed from the presence of the Creator and went their own way. A condensation of this oft-repeated story might be that such straying always leads to destruction and sorrow. We do well to pay heed to the prophetic voices warning us that we must humble ourselves before the creator and pay attention to the prophets of our time: Sara Teasdale, Ray Bradbury, David Suzuki, Al Gore, and the many in my church—the Mennonite Church—who have warned us that earth-care is people-care and that we can’t please our creator by pillaging his creation.

Most of us—I expect—live daily with what’s called “cognitive dissonance,” the stress that results from believing one thing and doing another. I was determined to disassemble the four palettes lying on my yard from construction and recycle the wood (good thing) but they were so stubbornly nailed together (bad thing) that I gave that up (bad thing) and hurled them all into the pit at the landfill (bad thing) where they will be burned (really bad thing), releasing a great deal of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and fly ash into the atmosphere (unforgivably bad thing). I am feeling really dissonant—cognitively—as a result.

Another word for this feeling is, of course, “guilty.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Nanny State, dental crowns and Readers' Digest

The church across the street

So yesterday I became a king, whereas previously I wasn't even a prince. After 4 appointments with my dentist totaling about 4 hours, two to perform a removal of everything above the root of a single bicuspid, two to cement a post to anchor an artificial “tooth," my dentist “crowned” me yesterday. She's done a good job; my prosthetic looks and feels like the real thing, and I've never before owned a twelve-hundred dollar tooth.

Besides enjoying these delightful times spent in the chair with my feet higher than my head, gazing up at that light with all its facets—like a fly's eye—and the heating grills in the ceiling, I had ample time to catch up on a few editions of Readers' Digest. I usually just read the jokes, but today I was there early so I decided to read an article by someone who had visited Mexico recently and felt compelled to compare it to Canada in one key area, namely the “nanny state” syndrome that he contends we live in here. In Mexico, according to the author, people are still allowed to bike without helmets, ride in the back of pickup trucks, work high above the street without safety gear, whereas we in Canada are so regulated and controlled by so many codes that our sense of individual adventurism has practically been drummed out of us.

Case in point: we were offered the decision on whether the basement stairs in our new home would be walled in or left open. We decided to leave the staircase open with just a handrail coming down so that the den area would seem larger. The building inspector has declared that this is unacceptable and that it needs to have—at least—spindles separated by no more than 4 inches in order to prevent falls, spaced closely enough to prevent children getting their heads caught in it. I remembered friends' children having been at our home and how they climbed up on everything from the table to the couch and jumped off and I wondered why the inspector didn't insist that none of the furniture be more than 18 inches high and have handrails around the edges!

And, of course, there are seat belt laws, a gun registry, public kitchen rules and inspections (a kitchen worker must wash hands after touching own face, etc.), speed limits, zoning bylaws, and in some cities, designated places where busking is allowed. I might add, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Is there a happy place, a moderate place, between anarchy and the nanny state? Are we at that place here in Canada, or is Mexico, or the USA or Germany? I wonder about this as I puzzle over the addition of spindles to my already-constructed staircase while tonguing my unfamiliar new dental crown. Maybe I'll drag the whole shameer closer to Mexico.
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Sunday, July 05, 2009

What about Palestine? - Part 3

Storm over Rosthern - June 29, 2009
Hadawi, Sami. Bitter Harvest: a modern history of Palestine. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1989. ISBN 0-940793-29-6, 346 pages.

Chomsky, Noam. Middle East Illusions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, inc., 2003. ISBN 0-7425-2699-2, 280 pages.

Carter, Jimmy. Peace, not Apartheid. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-8502-6, 250 pages.

Here’s what should happen in the Middle East: Israel should withdraw from all occupied territory into the boundaries as they existed in 1967. Jerusalem should be declared an open city administered by its own, democratically-elected council. Palestine and Israel should be acknowledged to be sovereign, democratic states by the world community. The Palestine/Israel territory should undergo a genuine disarmament process.

Here’s what will probably happen: Israel will continue to eat up Palestinian territory by small stages, will continue to impoverish and harass Palestinians in the hope that they will take up permanent residence in Jordan and other neighbouring states. The US will continue to give lip service to the 2-state option while continuing to arm Israel and block all criticism of Israel’s actions in the UN Security Council. Desperate Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will repeatedly resort to improvised attacks on Israel and Israel will retaliate with extremely disproportionate force. Many will die; 20 or more Palestinians for each Israeli.

Here’s what could happen: US and Israeli intransigence and shortsightedness in Palestine will increasingly frustrate the rest of the world. The Arab states surrounding Israel will coalesce against the US/Israeli unwillingness to deal justly with Palestinians. Terrorist organizations will grow and expand their activities to include states seen to support the US policies in the Middle East. Israel will find itself more and more isolated as pressure from the outside world begins to recognize that Palestine represents a flash point that could trigger worldwide conflict. A concerted attack by the united Arab states to eliminate Israel will fail because of US intervention, but will leave all of Palestine in ruins with masses of Israeli and Arab refugees. The exchange of nuclear attacks between Iran and Israel is a possibility.

Palestinian Sami Hadawi, historian Noam Chomsky and former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter differ on some of the details, but agree on almost all the essentials. Israel and the USA are playing with fire in the Middle East and may be preparing the region for an unimaginable tragedy. Although justified on the premise that security is at stake, Israel has first signed on to, then broken a series of proposals for ending the conflict in Palestine. The US has run a rear guard action to protect Israel’s backside as it proceeds to steal land, disenfranchise the former owners and generally solidify it’s hold on the entire area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

All three books have shortcomings. Hadawi’s analysis is dated, of course; much significant history has occurred since his book was republished 20 years ago. The history of the region, however, going back to the early 20th Century is enlightening. It’s difficult to grasp all the implications of Palestinian history, especially if one wishes to go back to Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, or even to the boy David’s killing of the Palestinian, Goliath. But modern voters in the USA and its allies should at least have a concept of the progression from the early days of the discussions on a Jewish state (ca. 1919) through the Holocaust to the present. Hadawi’s book leads the reader through all this—at least up to the 1980s. Hadawi worked as a land valuer through the British Mandate period and is well placed to comment authoritatively on land issues as seen through Palestinian eyes.

Noam Chomsky’s book (Middle East Illusions) is a compilation of material produced by him over many years. Eminently readable, it offers the reader a history of Palestine after the 1967 war. Chomsky proposes a socialist Palestinian state, with independent, primarily-Palestinian and primarily-Israeli provinces operating with considerable autonomy under a central government, not unlike Manitoba and Saskatchewan under Canadian federalism.

Jimmy Carter’s book is, of course, mostly about what Jimmy Carter is doing and has done about the Palestinian conundrum before, during and after his presidency. You have to give Jimmy credit; bringing about the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel was a groundbreaking achievement, and his interest in pursuing continued progress on a peace settlement goes on unabated. Like the others, he sees clearly the failure of Israel and the US to seize opportunities for a settlement.

A solution in Palestine is hindered by several key factors. Mixed motives in the region is probably the big one; the USA’s hunger for a secure energy supply means it has a vital interest in controlling Middle Eastern affairs; an Israel in the centre of it all, possessing military superiority and the threat of nuclear weapons serves this motive. Secondly, the world has somehow been kept ignorant of the enormous wrong that has been and is being done in Palestine. It’s time more people became aware of this, and reading Hadawi, Chomsky and Carter makes a good start.

Monday, June 29, 2009

What about Palestine? - Part 2

Dandelion - Weed? or Flower?

Historian Noam Chomsky writing about the Palestine/Israel conflict provides a few perspectives that are highly discouraging to those who would like to see a resolution to the struggle. As we all know, Israel has established numerous settlements in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights, in defiance of assorted resolutions at the UN and accords made over the years at Camp David, Oslo, etc. The world community has protested this expansion into what is occupied territory, but no action has been taken to cause this practice to stop. The US could have insisted and taken steps to make certain that Israel respected established borders, at least. This could easily havebeen achieved by tying aid to compliance.

There exists an often-reiterated opinion in Israel that Palestinians are not “a people” and Judea and Samaria do not constitute a country. If this is false, Israelis are invaders and plunderers; if it is true, they are simply repossessing what has always been rightfully theirs. The argument seems absurd when one considers how Arabs in the area have had vineyards and farms, homes and villages confiscated and have been driven off land that has been in their families for centuries. What does it matter if the area they inhabited as a people is or was a nation or not?

The encroachment into the West Bank particularly is not simply a natural evolution; it’s a deliberate policy to establish a fact. This fact is that as ever more settlers make a home in disputed territory, their presence there makes it ever harder to reverse the process. It could be compared to the expropriation of North America, Australia, Latin America, by colonial powers. The push to settle the prairies of Canada, for instance, made it more and more difficult for the aboriginal people to assert their rights in the land, and the argument that this was not “their nation” after all served to excuse their eviction as it does that of the Palestinians.

So who benefits from Israeli expansionism to such a degree that putting an end to it is outweighed by other interests? Well, the state of Israel, one supposes, but according to Chomsky the future of Israel has been placed in grave jeopardy by its actions. One would think that the US would benefit from peace in the Middle East, but it has to be remembered that the US is an oil importer on a large scale and Israel’s neighbours are sitting on much of the oil needed by US industry and people. Israel as it exists right now serves as a policeman in the area; it has weapons and a military machine that is unmatched by any of its neighbours. Israel has disciplined Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, in the past and the US is commercially better for it (and by extension, possibly, Canada and Europe).

Aboriginal people in North America resisted the colonialism that eventually resulted in the countries of Canada and the US. Their resistance was put down brutally, pitilessly, as if they were less than human and their lives counted for very little. Such an obscenity ripples through the centuries; it’s being repeated in Palestine, a place where it is not nearly as clear that the colonialists will prevail. Reading Chomsky, in fact, could easily lead one to believe that a catastrophe that will destroy both Israel and the Palestinians is in the making.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What about Palestine? - Part 1

I've often wondered why Christian Peacemaker Teams people are so unapologetically pro-Palestinian. I'd assumed the story was two-sided, and that they had chosen one side because of an “underdog bias,” and the fact that they were doing their work in the Palestinian enclaves, by and large. I should have read Sami Hadawi's Bitter Harvest a long time ago. First published in 1967, it's been reprinted repeatedly; the edition I'm reading was copyrighted in 1989.

To say there are two sides to the Palestinian conflict and its history is to say that when a man blatantly shoots a neighbour, drives his family off land that had represented their family's livelihood for centuries and seizes it all for his own, fairness would dictate that there are two equal but opposing parties whose stories must be weighed. There's only one side to this story; the story is one of theft, murder, deceit, prejudice, discrimination and disregard for the value of human life in order that Zionism could dispossess Palestinian Arabs of their land and cleanse the area of the "riff-raff" that lived upon it.

So says Hadawi, and he makes the case with copious statistics, documents, quotations, citations and his own experience as one born in Jerusalem and as an official land valuer during the British Mandate period and later for the Jordanian government and the United Nations Palestine Conciliation Commission. In 1965, he was appointed director of the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut and his books and pamphlets on Palestinian affairs are numerous.

Much of the West lives with an uncomfortable double standard with regard to Palestine. On the one hand, the memory of the Holocaust is still fresh enough that providing Jewry with a safe place feels like “the least we can do,” given our complicity in anti-Semitic historical events. This coupled with the enormous potential for being fingered as anti-Semitic for criticizing Israeli policies weighs heavily in our pernicious tendency to overlook Israel's transgressions and their excuses, namely that their theft and killing excesses are carried out in the interest of their security. On the other hand, we have seen the seizure of properties, the failure of Israel to carry out its commitments to the UN, the deadly overreactions and we know that these are morally very, very wrong. And yet, the former sensitivities paralyze the West and have historically allowed the Israeli state to commit atrocity after atrocity with impunity.

But I still have much to learn on the subject. I've also ordered a few books from the library that are authored by Jews. At present, I've come to some conclusions that need to be tested:

1) The state of Israel should not be confused with the “Children of Israel” of the Old Testament, nor should it be considered an extension of the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the prophets. Israel is a modern country like Liechtenstein and Canada, but one that uses the pretext of Biblical manifest destiny to excuse ethnic cleansing.

2) Judaism is not a race. There are plenty of people of the Jewish faith who are not Semitic and there are plenty of people we know as Jewish who are not adherents to Zionism's world view. We must separate our evaluation of the state of Israel's policies from our sensitivities about antisemitism.

3) There will be no redress for the degradation and disgrace Israel has heaped on Palestinian Arabs without a forceful determination by the world community that Israel will carry out its commitments to the UN to observe strict boundaries, protect property and human rights for all inhabitants and adhere to the common standards of decency in its dealings.

Hadawi has left me with these impressions. More later.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Madly Off

I dreamed last night that I—a 67 year-old retiree—walked into a Grade 12 Social Studies class as a substitute teacher. I had a lesson in mind; I would engage them in an exciting discussion of the dynamics, the losses and gains particularly, that characterize social transactions. I would start with a simple example: you hire on with a contractor and you lose your freedom for the day, but you gain a paycheck. In my dream this was all tremendously significant stuff; I thought I might move on to choices of a weightier nature, like sex, marriage, etc.

But first one must take attendance: I couldn’t find the register, couldn’t find any list of names, couldn’t find a paper and pencil on which to write it down. I knew an attendance record was an important part of my job on this day. Solving that dilemma took half the time for the class and—if this had been a hockey game—put me down three or four goals in the “keeping order” department, the most significant aspect of any substitute teacher’s task.

I finally got to my lesson, but by then I hardly had an audience. The class had disintegrated into clatches here and there, talking and laughing, and there was no obvious way to get them involved in any discussion short of offering them each an iphone if they would shut up and listen. (Is this the nature of the real loss/gain bargain in the education transaction?)

And then a few at the back drifted away; the rest of the class, assuming they had been dismissed, followed them out without a backward glance. They sealed their victory by scoring into my empty net.

Jump to the second dream of the night, as did I: I’m looking for a certain building on the campus of the University of Alberta. I’m like Leacock’s Lord Ronald who “flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” I go north, south, east, west, but can’t find anything I recognize. Finally I enter a building where I’m accosted by, apparently, a teacher from the school of my first dream; he’s going to report me, he says, to the higher authorities for my debacle in the Social Studies classroom. I assure him that I’m aware of my failure, that I used to be a relatively competent teacher but am old and grey now, that there’s no liklihood of my showing up there again . . . ever, and we part amicably.

Interpretation: Frustration during the day leads to dreams of frustration. We’ve just moved and things are not as rosy as we’d dreamed; basement still not finished, boxes everywhere, I’m having no end of challenges laying a floor. On Friday, I went to a meeting in the Education Building at the University of Saskatchewan. I drove around trying to find it for a time; ergo, my second nightmare. Search combined with frustration. The events of the days rearing up their heads in the random richocheting of electrical firings through the synapses of my mind, passing through a museum of memories and impressions and creating a story with the remnants they pick up there.

I wish you all sweet dreams

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obama and the Culture Wars

Insane Palette
The first chapter in Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, is titled “Values.” In it, Obama convincingly draws the argument that Americans have come to accept by slow degrees a politic surrounding their differences as opposed to their common values. We’ve come to know this divide as the “culture wars,” although that name may be more misleading than enlightening.

Finding values on which North Americans agree is not difficult. Values surrounding individual freedom of speech, movement and religion and the democratic rights we enjoy are generally hold in common by the inductive and the deductive thinkers among us, by the conservatives, liberals and socialists as well as by the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. It’s these (and others, of course) that unite us; it’s the hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, abortion laws, stem cell research that divide us so dramatically that it seems like we are a people “at war,” culturally.

And so politics takes on the qualities of a hockey game. It turns itself into a match in which one team on a hot-button issue is pitted against the other. Hockey itself is based on a disagreement between two teams on a trivial matter: the Rockets believe that the little rubber disk should go into the net at the north end of the rink, the Trojans maintain adamantly that it should go into the net at the south end. A competition in which the sides agree would be no fun at all. American politics has turned itself into a hockey game and although the very idea of a party system gives a nod to some division of values, our value differences used to be debated amicably on the sidelines whereas now, they have taken over the core of the game called democracy. So argues Obama.

There are those, of course, who will argue that some hot-button issues of the day are by no means trivial, and I agree. The way we treat embryos as we research the efficacy of stem cells in disease treatment could very well influence how we view the life of the unborn in the future. That’s not trivial. But surely the core value here surrounds the right-to-life principle—a commonly held value—and the way we use embryonic stem cells in research and finally in medical practice is beyond the capability of government, who can render it legal or illegal, but cannot determine in every individual case whether the goals of science and life-preserving medicine in that case are ethical and right.

Same-sex marriage definitely should not have become an election issue. The US constitution declares that every individual has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There are two significant aspects to marriage in Christian circles: 1) the community blesses a union, usually of husband and wife, and 2) the state acknowledges that from that day forward, all legal matters pertaining to spousal relationships will apply to this couple (if the documentation is in place and the minister is licensed properly.) Whether or not the Fenderbender Holier-Than-Thou Christian Church members decide to marry gay couples or not is up to them; the attempt to impose a universal legal restriction on the pursuit of happiness of people with a minority sexual orientation is a case of unnecessarily feeding a culture war.

The wish to have government settle our culture wars in Canada is becoming irksome, even if we haven’t sunk to the level of the USA in that regard . . . yet. The Conservative Party is running attack ads on television as I write this, even though there’s no election campaign in progress. Basing their argument on opposition leader Michael Ignatieff's having lived and worked outside the country for many years, they are attempting to exploit a trivial issue to inflame the gullible against the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, our core values—including courtesy, decency and fairness—are being thrown to the dogs in favour of petty partisanship.

We shouldn’t put up with that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Moving Days

I recently heard an environmentalist say that the best thing we can do for the earth is to "stay at home." We travel a lot, move around a lot, burn up energy in both cases. Humans are restless, curious creatures and desire to see new landscapes, harbour an urge to nest in a new tree, long to engage with new people.
Friends just moved to town. At 70+, this is their second home location in a lifetime. Agnes and I have received mail in about 30 places in ours! I wonder if we qualify in the psycho-medical world for some kind of condition that may sometime have a name: "compulsive-obsessive dislocation syndrome" or something.

Thursday's our relocation day to a house that at this moment has no front porch . . . but will by then. Moving is anxiety-producing, of course, as is all relocation/disclocation. I imagine the decision to stay or move is always a balance between two impulses (rest in the old, venture into the new) that tips one way or the other from time to time.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Creation is now


There’s evidence that humankind as we now see it—on the streets, in the stands at football games, in the pews on a Sunday morning—is an evolving life form. Imagine trying to explain the workings of an Ipod to a Neanderthal or early Homo Sapien, watching him scratch his head with a hairy finger. Our average size and our brain capacity have been increasing gradually over the nearly 200,000 years of our [Homo Sapien] presence on earth.

Normally—when you can see where a phenomenon began and how it has progressed—you can make a tentative prediction on where it is headed. If we begin with a man in a cave with a club and spear, cowering against the cold under animal hides, and track the progression in sophistication to the moon landing of Neil Armstrong, what is the potential in humankind given another 100,000 years of evolution? (This assumes, of course, that there won’t be an extinction event meanwhile.) Will the moon rocket and the Ipod appear as primitive to future humans as club and spear do to us?

Whatever the nature and physical structure of humans in the future, it’s not a big leap to the assertion that he/she is currently being created. Obviously, then, we represent a stage in that creation, and not an end-point. We are, we would hope, co-creators of a better human, one who can finally grasp the futility of material accumulation and warfare, who lives the codependence of all of the Creator’s creatures, and with the skills necessary to manage the earth’s resources so that all are beneficiaries of her largesse. One who possesses a Creator consciousness, is imbued with the “Holy Spirit.”

We are either co-creators with The Creator, consumers simply feeding on what’s been provided, or vandals wrecking and wasting what has been achieved so far. And if we can’t grasp the big picture yet, we ought at least to recognize the creative role we play vis-à-vis our children . . . and their futures.