Sunday, May 31, 2015

Garage Sales and Soccer

For Sale: 25 cents Or Best Offer
Sunday morning. Town's quiet. Our B & B guests are getting acquainted over omelets and toast.

When God declared a Sabbath for rest from our labours, I don't think he had in mind the rigours of garage sales and soccer.

Rosthern's population doubled on Saturday. The under-8s and under-10s soccer tournament brought in 600 kids along with parents and brothers and sisters. We and about a dozen other residents had determined that it would be a great weekend for garage sales and some of our customers had made a day of it. Two office chairs went to the Prud'homme Library, for instance, carried back home by a soccer mom.

I'm not sure what's behind the impulse to frequent garage sales. It's apparent to me that some (hoarders maybe?) come out with a few dollars and a hope that they'll be able to fill their trunks with neat stuff for next to nothing. Some are looking for treasure and some actually need items that are bound to appear once in a while at a good price. 

Others, I'm convinced, are voyeurs; garage sales give them an opportunity to snoop into private lives. It's obviously a simple diversion for others: the Garage Sailors.

I remember driving through Somerset county on a leisurely Sunday and seeing a “Boot Sale” sign pointing toward a meadow with cars parked in two rows. “Need boots?” I asked Agnes, but it was curiosity that made us turn off. The cars had their “boots” open, of course, from which they were selling, well, the same kind of stuff we sell at garage sales.

Another version of the flea market, a concept older than Dickens.

We live in an age where recycling, reducing and reusing are taken for granted. Our landfill sites are bursting with our 'stuff' and our resources are depleting. To see a table we can no longer use go to someone for whom “it's perfect!” provides some satisfaction, even if the item cost $300.00 and you're selling it for $50.00. And the office chairs will do well for Prud'homme's library, especially since, like all libraries, they're starved for cash.

A young boy—probably about 12—picked out a book for which he paid $0.50; it was a very old German, Mennonite hymnbook. I didn't get that. Maybe he liked the smell or the heft of it.

Another man said he'd decided to spend $5.00 but so far had only reached $4.00. He was looking for another $1.00 item to add to his cache. I didn't get that either. We had plenty of change.

Anyway, meeting people has to be the highlight of sitting on your driveway for two days like children with a hopeful lemonade stand. The 8-year old soccer stars in their cleats and knee socks cuddling the stuffed animals with which our kids used to play, well, that's priceless.

Murphy's Law of Soccer and Garage Sales reads as follows: Put on a garage sale or tournament and clouds will gather, the temperature will drop and the wind will pick up. The forecast for the Sunday after: sunny with a light breeze and seasonal temperatures.

I think we sold a few blankets to moms watching the soccer from the sidelines.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Omar Khadr - Child Soldier

Found Glory

The granting of parole to Omar Khadr and the Canadian government's attempts to stop it was big in the news a few weeks ago.

There's no disputing that Khadr was a juvenile at the time of the incident for which a military court tried him at Guantanamo Bay. There's no dispute about his having been on the al-Qaeda side of a firefight with US Special Forces. There's still uncertainty about whether or not it was he who threw the hand grenade that killed US officer Speer largely because the interrogations and the trial of Khadr included torture and the denial of basic rights like access to legal council for the first two years of incarceration and a three year delay in laying charges.

In other words, Khadr's “confession” would be thrown out in any legitimate court.

Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Stephen Harper on February 2, 2008 outlining the degree to which the trial of Khadr violated international—even US—conventions on the treatment of juvenile offenders. Click on the link above to read it for yourself.

For me, an open question has always been this: in a war situation where combatants are firing at each other, is it a crime under international law or the conventions of war to kill one of the enemy? If so, should the US soldier who shot and wounded Khadr also be brought to trial for committing a war crime?

Should Khadr have been released on parole? Of course, but the more relevant question is whether or not he should ever have been imprisoned, tried and convicted as he was in the first place. A 15-year old brainwashed by his father and al-Qaeda, fighting to save his life in a combat situation, surely falls under the conventions of child soldiers and juveniles generally:

“International law recognizes the special situation of children who have been recruited or used in armed conflict. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (“Optional Protocol”), which Canada ratified in 2000 and the United States ratified in 2002, requires that all states parties provide for the rehabilitation of former child soldiers within their jurisdiction, including all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.” (HRW letter to Harper)

Canadian government appeals to quash the decision to parole Khadr were dismissed in short order by the courts. Nevertheless, these actions provided the government with a couple of really useful narratives for the election campaign: “We are the party that protects you from terrorism,” and “The courts in Canada are interfering in democracy; now they're making law instead of judging it!”

For Canadians who like simple, black on white narratives, such campaign scripts may be encouragement enough put an X beside the Conservative candidate's name on the ballot. For voters who understand that the rule of law exists for very good reasons, not so much.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Who needs birds anyway?

According to The Nature of Things, hosted by Dr. David Suzuki, the official stance in the neurological sciences has long been that animal minds are “black boxes,” that the existence or non-existence of thought and emotion in animals is unknowable. 

Dog owners, particularly, would always have objected. The antics of their German Shepherd when he sees the leash and collar come out is just too much like the elation in a child upon seeing mother come through the door. It's difficult to dismiss as something other than joy. The baleful look and the cowering of a dog being scolded is too characteristic of human behaviour in such a situation to be dismissed as something other than an emotion.
The documentary goes on to talk about recent research that points in the direction of rethinking the “black box” assumption. We humans have brains with left and a right hemispheres; the left controls the right side of our bodies—including our faces—and the right controls the left. But the left also houses our affective (emotional) controls and when we meet a stranger of whom we are apprehensive, we unconsciously focus on the right side of the persons face; it's where emotions first reveal themselves.

Interestingly, dogs do the same thing when they meet a person-stranger. So even if they don't experience joy, sadness, anger in the same way we do, they obviously recognize these emotions in us.

I suspect the “black box” sentiment was more a defense against the guilt of killing and eating animals than pure science. If animals experience fear, anger, joy, love in a similar way to humans, slaughterhouses begin to seem more and more like NAZI death camps. Furthermore, the bond that grows between people and their pets surely argues for more “feeling” than that between a human and a china cat.

Something we no longer practice—or are even conscious of, seems to me—is the reverence for living things and the elements that sustain them. Major world religions lack a doctrine of the interconnectedness of life on the planet; these days our relationship to living-things-that-are-not-us has been dictated by economists, lawyers and corporate entrepreneurs through manipulation of our governments.

The numbers of those who have embraced the dream of a more humane and sustainable world are increasing but we're nowhere near a tipping point. My personal hero in the struggle is Trevor Herriot and one of my favourite books is his Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. Herriot is the advocate general for the birds that lived in abundance on the Saskatchewan prairies before agricultural and industrial “progress” forced them into smaller and smaller habitats.

Like the canary in the coal mine, the elimination of species with a cavalier “who needs birds anyway” attitude is a signal of enormous loss that will both haunt and bite us back in the future.

Anyone who has seen a tiny bird's antics in protecting her nest can surely see that birds want to live; they struggle to protect their lives and those of their loved ones. What part of that can't we humans understand?

I'm grateful to CBC and to Dr. Suzuki for championing a better way to be in the world through The Nature of Things. Hopefully, more and more of us will begin to turn away from Two and a Half Men to The Nature of Things to learn about the world—but how many crises will it take to make that happen?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

I haven't a thing to wear.

Makayla King short shorts“Spaghetti straps. Ultra-short skirts. Excessive cleavage. Midriff-baring tops. Shorts with a hem shorter than where a person's fingertips graze when they are standing.”
     Here we go again! That old what's-appropriate-for-girls-to-wear-to-school-and-what's-not debate. True, school boys are required to “dress appropriately,” but when the question resurfaces—as it's done constantly since coed education was invented—it's the girls who make it into the news.
     The CBC story about 17 year-old Lauren Wiggins being sent home from school for wearing an off-the-shoulder, full-length halter dress to school elicited the old saws about what clothing is appropriate for the classroom and what isn't. “It's a sexual distraction,” her teachers said, and others said that assuming boys to be helpless against bared shoulders, cleavage and belly buttons isn't helpful in their development as women-respecting men.
     I went to a high school where school uniforms for girls were mandatory and boys couldn't wear jeans or shorts to class. 60 years later, they all wear “uniform” clothing to class, but they have choices among a number of prescribed items. 
     The most compelling argument for uniforms in my day was that they relieved anxiety about what to wear, particularly for girls. I guess the fringe benefit was that girls wouldn't dress to provoke and distract the boys.
     Surely, attracting or distracting, being noticed—or at least fitting in—are what dress and fashion are about. Lauren Wiggins certainly got noticed; she made it onto national television! She'll be lucky if the on-line taunting doesn't undo her in the end, though.
     Wearing a ball gown to class is not a crime. But for appropriateness, it has to rank with the wearing of high rubber boots to gym class.
     Individualism has been given a boost in the post modern age. It's not unusual for people to play the “I have my rights” and “you can't make me” cards when confronted about their behaviour. Surely education is partly about teaching the balance between individual rights and community needs. Lauren Wiggins hasn't accepted the need for such a balance, yet. But she's only 17, right in the middle of her Sturm und Drang period.
     Often, I find, these teapot tempests are symptomatic of unresolved social tensions. In this case, it's the ambivalence about human sexuality. This confusion, in turn, can be traced back to the simple fact that we have, over the centuries, evolved dramatically in our capacity to reason, to organize and to assume mastery over ourselves and our environments. Meanwhile, our procreative instincts remain unchanged; our biological “progress” has hardly surpassed that of the Bonobo monkey. This discrepancy represents a Gordian Knot that we are having a hard time untying.
     The Christian Bible is clear in its admonitions of sexual restraint. But restraint is not a watchword in currant Western cultures; permissiveness, maybe. But I fear that a tug-of-war between permissiveness and restraint (externally applied, if necessary) is not ever going to resolve issues involving sexuality.      
     Until Lauren Wiggins sees conformity in the area of dress as beneficial and satisfying, I expect she will continue to seek attention in an “off-the-shoulder, full-length halter dress” manner.
     And the restrainers will feel forced to pounce.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Are you an antisemite? Am I?

A blessing found in a ditch

I am an anti-Semite . . .

at least according to Minister of Public Safety, Steven Blaney,  who has characterized criticism of Israeli actions as a new antisemitism. I support the efforts of Christian Peacemaker Teams as they accompany Palestinian children to school to protect them from harassment by West Bank settlers and Israeli soldiers. I applaud the United Church and Quakers for speaking up for a humane, negotiated settlement of the Israel/Palestine question.

Ergo, I am on the side of Jew haters . . . according to Blaney.

If Blaney is incapable of separating genuine concern for the future of all people in the Middle East from holocaust-style antisemitism, he ought not be in charge of a government department. Antisemitism exists, of course. Terrorism and extremism too. Guarding against both is logically an important task for the Ministry of Public Safety. In his naivete, Blaney has actually encouraged the conflating of Jewish ethnicity with the secular state of Israel, an action that will promote rather than discourage antisemitic sentiments in people.

These pronouncements can't, of course, be separated from the election campaign. Indeed, all utterances coming from politicians from now until October have to be seen in the light of that reality. The rhetoric surrounding terrorism and related subjects coming from the Harper government recently seems to be painting the world as a place pervaded by evil, where citizens are in imminent danger and the current government is very decisively and wisely taking the necessary steps to protect them.

Something had to be found to redirect our attention when the economy began to tank.

I know persons who staunchly believe that the citizens of present-day Israel are the living remnant of the Children of Israel in the Old Testament. That's not an illogical conclusion as regards genetics and religious tradition. Another reading of the history will show that the Children of Israel were being punished for their error as often as they were being blessed for their faithfulness. Either way, any conclusion about the legitimacy of the state of Israel as it exists today can't possibly exclude the raising of concerns regarding those actions it takes that directly affect its neighbours.

A hallmark of naivete is the promotion of simple answers to complex questions. If campaigning politicians are banking on the electorate swallowing simple answers, they may well be shrewd.

Shrewd, however, is not necessarily wise, and to attempt to castigate and muzzle organizations that promote a negotiated settlement and the rule of law in Palestine is clearly a case of shrewdness trumping wisdom.

Short-term gain for long-term pain, I'm afraid.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

conversation is not just talk

Blackstrap Lake

Obviously, there's a lot more to conversation than the words that are spoken. You put yourself in the company of friends and you can safely assume that there will be conversation, although the range of topics is unpredictable. Maybe the point is not the topic but the interaction, like a friendly game of tennis. One serves, the other returns, repeat, repeat.

Too much non-interaction feels awkward and we all have the experience of “groping for a topic” when the silence gets uncomfortably long. You can't play tennis without a ball. It would look stupid.

All around the country men are going to coffee in the mornings—some in the afternoons and evenings as well. They obviously don't need the coffee; they've got coffee at home. It's conversation that's the real need here, especially for retired folk who no longer have a regular workplace where a full quota of interaction used to happen routinely. A bit of tennis is what's wanted.

Although the topics may not be the important components of coffee or party conversation, the choices aren't insignificant either. If you've little knowledge of machinery and the dialogue seems always to wander toward engine displacement, transmission lubricants and horsepower, you very soon begin to feel like you're on the tennis court without a racquet.

Someone speculated that conversation falls into three categories. In descending order of quality are conversations about ideas, things and people. Engagement in ideas, then, is the highest order. Gossip the lowest. A somewhat elitist view of the world, others would say, but there's merit to the concept in that idea conversations are more likely to include everyone around the restaurant table or in the living room.

As an example, take ideas about how we design our houses. Everyone lives in a house, must maintain it and deal with its idiosyncrasies. Talking about the best doorknobs available, though, is a “things” conversation; debating whether or not we generally build our houses too large is an “ideas” conversation. Exchanging information on how poorly the Jones maintain their yard is a “people” topic. It's easy to see that idea-dialogue provides scope for imagination and invention; the other topics may seem mundane in comparison. The last one may even prove destructive.

Thing is, we generally end up in groups that are conversationally compatible, individuals that share common interests, that naturally veer toward topics in which all can participate. Groups in which attention is paid to ensuring that everyone has a racquet.

Should the art of conversation be a school subject? History tells us that Cleopatra was a persuasive conversationalist, fluent in six languages, a student of history and culture and oratory. Alexandrian education was not so much job-oriented as it was geared to personal development. In a time when Roman women were chattels for trading, she so adeptly won Roman emperor Caesar to her cause that she was able not only to bed him but to bring his battalions to her aid.

Alexandria was obviously not Rome.

Because in the end, it's a satisfactory, rewarding, uplifting interaction that we came for. Isn't it?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Power corrupts . . . sometimes

Tea, anyone?
It's inevitable. If you eat 1,000 more calories than your body needs every day, you will gain weight. If you drop a plate on the driveway, it will break.

     British Historian, Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." I imagine most of us would take exception to the last part, at least if it comes without a definition of “great.” Furthermore, women should take exception to the inference that only men can be corrupted by power. Chauvinist!

     Emperors and kings, dictators and oligarchies don't figure much in our world, at least not in the West. But through the ballot box or by appointment we bestow the burden—or privilege—of power on all kinds of people and too often what I call the Acton effect reveals itself rather quickly.
     Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Allison Redford come easily to mind, and now Brad Wall is being charged by the opposition with spending taxpayers' dollars frivolously by sending emissaries ahead on trade missions to arrange his meals, accommodation, etc. This runs into a whack of money when the mission is to Asia. (The option of using travel agencies comes to mind.)

     We've been watching episodes of Wolf Hall on PBS periodically. It's centered on the court intrigue during the reign of Henry VIII; the manipulations and compromises of Thomas Cromwell in service of the king and the exercise of monarchial privilege wielded by Henry make for fascinating studies of the Acton effect in an earlier time.

     Meanwhile, I'm also reading Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, a biography that takes us back into the century before Christ. Cleopatra inherited the throne at 18, conjointly with her 10 year-old brother (to whom she was also married for a time) and grew up in a family where members murdered one another in order to achieve and hold power. Yikes!

     Kings and dictators historically have assumed a privileged morality: kings do whatever they want—whose to stop them? Furthermore, in order to preserve the kingdom the ruler must exercise his power. He has to be, and be seen to be, leader and protector of his subjects.
     But that hardly explains Mike Duffy's finding ways to charge even his personal trainer's fees to the public purse. Many of us find ourselves entitled to expense accounts from time to time. Work on committees, appointment to leadership positions require that the personal costs we incur in order to carry out our responsibilities are reimbursed. 
     The temptation to be overly generous to ourselves is real, particularly because it's an honour system in part and cheating is easy. It is, nevertheless, theft, hardly distinguishable from shop lifting . . . ethically, morally. It's also easily justified under the rubric of “I work hard and long for this (company, committee, institution), they owe me.”

     I can also hear Mike Duffy say in his defense, “To do my job, I have to be fit; ergo, the personal trainer cost is really my employers' (taxpayers') expense.” (Politicians also need orange juice to do their job, even when it's $16.00 a pop!)

     We generally shorten Lord Acton's pronouncement to “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Maybe it's too cynical by half. I've known a lot of hard-working board members in charitable organizations who donate not only their time and work as well as their personal expenses to the cause they're supporting through their participation.
     Corruption is not inevitable, not like overeating that leads to obesity.

     But when politicians of any stripe confuse their status with people like Henry VIII or Cleopatra, we have good reason to protest. 
     Corruption has no legitimate place in a democracy.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Alberta election ruminations

I've no first-hand experience with the dynamics of transition when a new party is elected to power, but I imagine that very soon, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice will have to go back to the premier's office with cardboard boxes to clean out his stuff, and Rachel Notley will very soon arrive with cardboard boxes full of her stuff, she'll hang pictures, move the desk slightly, sharpen pencils.

I also imagine that the outgoing premier and all cabinet ministers will meet with their incoming counterparts to brief them on what is current and pending in their departments. Dossiers will be handed over, emails will fly back and forth, deputy ministers will fear for their jobs, some MLAs may lobby discretely for certain cabinet positions, the incoming premier will meet long with advisors, and. . . and . . . and.

A few new MLAs will need a guide to show them where everything important is but will wander into closets and bathrooms by mistake anyway.

 In one of the most shameful acts in politics that I can recall, Jim Prentice resigned as PC leader AND as the representative in the legislature for Calgary-Foothills constituency—before the ballots electing him had all been counted! How could constituents not come to the conclusion that their representation had never been of any interest to him; that he would be premier or nothing?

The transition in Alberta shows signs of being difficult.In elections where the governing party is in danger of losing, I expect there's always a strong temptation to sabotage the winning rival's chances of succeeding. Short of putting bear traps under desks, there's always the option of cutting taxes and initiating expensive, vote-getting programs as part of an election platform. If the voters like these measures, you'll get re-elected. If not, you'll have made it difficult for your successors to govern without raising taxes or cancelling programs that are just not affordable, thereby improving your chances in the next election!

Our federal government is busily laying these bear traps at this moment.

I give a great deal of credit to the citizens of Alberta for placing their future into the hands of a new crew of people and out of the hands of tired corporatism. No matter how loud the protests, the idea that if the top prospers, the rest will benefit remains an invisible plank in Western conservative politics. That, or an even worse consciousness that the establishment shall always get what they want and . . . please pass the butter. Jim Prentice's actions imply that the ideals of representative democracy simply never figured in his agenda.

What is uplifting about the Alberta election, for me, is that it might set loose a consciousness in the rest of Canada that same-old, same-old doesn't have to be. Would that the young people, the ones trying to establish themselves in the grown-up world, would be more involved but then, how many Canadians of any age have a good grasp of the platforms, philosophies of the parties?

And tomorrow Great Britain elects a new government, and if the polls are as dead-on as they were in Alberta, they may find Tories and Labour in a dead heat . . . with the Scottish Nationalist party calling the shots. 

Remind you a bit of the Bloc Quebec a few elections ago?

Friday, May 01, 2015

Alberta rethinks itself . . . maybe

Gospel Hymnody recalled
The Eastern pundits were out in full, royal regalia on our national network last night, expressing loud incredulity that the NDP was leading in the polls in Alberta before next Tuesday's provincial election. True, Albertans have elected PC governments without a break for over 40 years, but the implication in all this amazement was that Alberta is the red-neck capital of Canada, a stereotype that it doesn't deserve. 

I lived in Alberta for ten-plus years, a few of them in Edmonton, the rest in the nearby bedroom community of Spruce Grove. There was plenty of progressive thinking going on in that part of the province; NDP candidates were winning some seats, were competitive in others. The view from there—uttered with a sigh on occasion—was that corporate oil and ranching agriculture represented the hard right-wing position in the province. Calgary, in other words, was the red-neck capital if any place was. Not Alberta.

There's propaganda that goes around and around during election campaigns: the NDP is a tax and spend party; Conservatives are the astute fiscal managers. The fact that history proves this to be a false analysis doesn't stop it being repeated in campaigns.

The other half of that lie is that low taxes equate to good governance, and high taxes to its opposite. This is a false consciousness: low vs. high is not the relevant criterion. Fairness and equity are the foundation for finding the right levels of taxation, understanding at the same time that taxes should be sufficient to maintain public infrastructures and ensure sound, equal health care, education, meaningful work and safe domicile for everybody.

It's social democracy. It's the difference between seeing people as widgets in an economy and acknowledging that the economy is the set of tools that can provide a satisfactory living for every citizen. What's happening in Alberta—and may happen writ large in Canada in October—is that people have begun to see the chinks in the conservative armour. For poverty, homelessness, youth unemployment, aboriginal treaty obligations, regional disparity, their world view simply can't picture answers. Their vision doesn't tend that way. Witness the mess our federal government is making in the areas of veterans' support, aboriginal relations, youth unemployment. In recognition of their failings, they can only tinker and devise absurd policies like increasing punishment as the answer to crime, income splitting, and a host of ill-advised bills struck down by the supreme court because they violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

And then during election campaigns, they resort to smear campaigns and to the handing-out of gifts to the demographics where they deem their support base to lie.

Alberta voters may panic on Tuesday under the barrage of propaganda, hold their noses and revert to the status quo. It happened in the last election, but three premiers later and an early election call by Prentice after a budget that had no answers, they just might break old habits this time.

I lived in Alberta in the 90s during which a bumper sticker was precipitated by an economic downturn, deficit budgets and wage claw-backs from civil servants: “Please Lord, give us another oil boom and this time we promise not to piss it all away!”

It's not hard to argue that, by golly, they pissed it away . . . again.