Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Aging and Playfulness

My city is full of construction in preparation for Light Rail Transit. I hit the bookstore today and was walking towards the hardware store for some blinds when the sidewalk abruptly ended. An orange mesh fence framing a "Pedestrians, use the other sidewalk" sign stopped me in my tracks. I considered turning back, but I had come this far. So I made my way across four lanes of traffic to the other side where, lo and behold, there was a twin sign and fence bookending the highway. There WAS no other sidewalk!

After determining that there was absolutely no other way to get from point A to point B, I slithered my way around the fence and into a 2' deep trench that once featured a walkway. Sloshing through lovely suctiony mud, I was further pleased that I wasn't able to find my sneakers at home earlier and had resigned myself to heavy boots on a reasonably mild day. And as I was happily stomping through the muck on the busy street, just 20' or so from where the sidewalk would begin again, I thought about a book I had just paged through but hadn't bought.

Ian Brown is a favourite writer of mine. I even e-mailed him about a bit of writing I had done once, and he courteously responded (which I printed and saved). His newest book is about turning 60. He wrote a diary-like entry once a day for a year, and I immediately regretted not doing the same at the start of this year, my 50th, except I know I'd never keep it up for a year. Once I started a blog taking a picture a day of myself - no words or ideas, just a snapshot. I lasted three days. Routine is not my forté.

But I didn't buy the book because it would make me too introspective. I buy books to face me outside of myself. John Ralston Saul's The Comeback was my choice today. A book about someone turning 60 would have me dwelling on turning 50. Even just paging through it a bit has done that well enough, obviously!  Brown wonders about what 60 looks like, what pleasures are found and lost, what it means to be 60 these days. I understand those questions as I find myself searching out which famous people are close to my age. Woody Harrelson is close, and Robert Downey Jr. But famous women my age don't often look like anything I could recognize in the mirror. What does 50 look like? It's so hidden it's become foreign to us. And how do 50-year-olds act?

I thought of Brown's book as I enjoyed my muddy journey trespassing around barricades on a busy street in broad daylight, and I became briefly self-conscious, suddenly aware that I'm not 10-years-old, but a middle-aged lady intentionally splashing mud like a crazy* person! This makes it all the more hilarious. Somehow I'm typically saved from acknowledging the gaze of the other through some magical built-in obliviousness to norms, which allows for a strange sort of freedom. I might look ridiculous, but I'm causing no harm.

Why is unself-conscious playfulness the thing we give up as we get older when we could just as easily give up judgment and spite and crabbiness. Because shouldn't we all enjoy a bit of a splash now and again?


* I waffled over how to word that line for ages. I considered "like something's wrong with me" or "like I'm on drugs" but both have the same problem of stereotyping behaviours. Yet I do want to get across that childhood behaviours in an adult are ridiculed - people think less of us as they would someone with a mental challenge or illness. And the whole point is, wouldn't it be cool if they didn't?

On Making Change

For decades, I've been bringing cloth bags to the grocery store to avoid using plastic bags and bringing home superfluous garbage. But for decades, it's been an annoyance for the poor cashier who had to figure out what to do with my pile of assorted sacks, and who, more often than not, would just leave all the groceries for me to sort and stuff.

In the last 3-5 years, all that has changed. Ever since they started charging for plastic bags and offering store-logo'd bags for sale at the check-out, cashiers now ASK if I have my own bags. They welcome my thread-bare sacks without hesitation. That change is nearing completion: a state in which bringing containers for groceries is the norm, and accepting plastic bags for a price is deviant. Of course we're understanding when people forget their bags; we all do it from time to time. But I can't imagine people having that same pitying reaction to "I'll need some bags too" just five years ago.

Similarly, I've avoided most paper in my classroom for years. I have a website with all my handouts and assignments, and I collect and mark all work online. I don't just do that for the environment: my course notes are clearly organized and easier for students to find than a bunch of handouts at the bottom of their knapsack. It's also much faster to mark online, and all student work is automatically organized for me. I avoid marking programs in favour of simple, straightforward Gmail, which I've been using since 2002 when I worked on a teacher's guide and was introduced to online editing. I've been using that "Review" option on word documents ever since. Now I can just search a name in my mailbox to find a list of all the work a student's submitted with my comments and rubrics attached.

With google docs available for free, some students don't see the point in buying a word program, so I accommodate that too, reluctantly. Students aren't yet adept at sharing with the right settings that enable an easy communication, and it adds an extra step of checking dates when a document is "live." But it's still easier than collecting paper copies.

And, like the shift away from plastic bags, the hard copy advocates are becoming the deviants, which makes my life so much easier. It used to be the case that I had to also provide paper copies of assignments in case students didn't like using computers, and I had to accept hard-copies of work. Now that our school board is trying to cut back paper use by 75% in the next four years (75/5 started a year ago), it's acceptable to have all work online, and students have resigned themselves to the change. Some students even complain when teachers give handouts. They used to lament having to type up their work, but now they're up in arms if they're asked to print an assignment. The shift is almost complete. Some teachers are going further to make all their tests online, but then they have to watch all the screens like a hawk for googlers (with no LanSchool for chromebooks on wifi). Paper does still have its benefits, and so far I don't feel too guilty about one paper test each unit.

This shift is handy for me. It's good for the board's bottom line (money). And it saves trees. I'm surprised there aren't pulp and paper lobby groups all over this; maybe they've had to recognize times are changing and they won't be able to stop this kind of shift. Maybe.

How I feel when I talk about reducing paper,
and how I think other people feel: Oh bother.
So it is possible to change behaviours to the extent that people are appalled or embarrassed to be asked to do something that was commonplace just a few years back. It seems to have to involve business concerns over the financial costs of wastefulness. The change in paper use wouldn't have happened without the board being concerned with the cost and amount of paper being used. One person (me) jumping up and down about it, showing off my marked essays, and putting boxes for good-on-one-side paper in every room does absolute squat to change behaviours. Now can we apply the model to other issues?

Tim Horton's sort of charges for a cup, but they do it backwards with a discount if you bring your own mug. If they reversed that and decreased their prices by ten cents, but then charged a dime for the cost of a cup, AND encouraged people to buy a mug at the checkout, I think single-use cups could be dramatically reduced.

But those are really small potatoes. Can we reduce cars (single-use vehicles) and meat consumption the same way? That's the real challenge.

Stickers on gas pumps might help. I've long suggested stickers of child slaves on free trade chocolate bars to remind us to buy fair trade*, so maybe we can get some squished animals for meat packs from factory farms (even though we can't get GMO labelling here). But all the stickers might have the effect they did on cigarette packets, which is nil.

To follow this demonstrably effective model, we need the government to put in place a firm and dramatic limit on consumption of gas and factory farmed meat; I think that 75/5 target for typical residential use might help make a change, and it could be do-able. And they'd need to offer easy alternatives to use, like increase taxes enough to obliterate bus fares, or have promotions on other ways to get protein with recipes to help people make the transition to meat only on Mondays. Except that Big Oil and Monsanto might have something to say about it all. That's a bugger.

With political will, it could be done. It would mean a couple years of grumbling, but then we might get to a place where people complain if they're actually asked to do something that requires serving meat, like the boss is coming over and expects a steak, or that requires a vehicle, like moving across town.

It could happen.


* John Oliver on Last Week Tonight also had a bit in which people could get labels to stick on food products to tell the truth about the products. I posted the video on facebook, but it has since been deleted. And all other videos with the same name have edited out the ending with the citizen re-labelling suggestion. It makes me wonder if their legal department canned it not necessarily on "copyright grounds" as he just provided downloadable stickers his staff had created, but because it inspired an effective citizen backlash.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Those Statues Again

the first statue
There are dueling petitions out to continue and to stop statues of all 22 prime ministers being planted on the grounds of Wilfrid Laurier University, my old school that I loved all to bits. I wrote about this statue project on its inception two years ago. The statues were originally to be set up at Victoria Park, but a survey of our citizens showed 79% rejected the idea. This debate has made news at The Star, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail, where one professor noted,
"Parliament wants to encourage the participation of diverse groups for the 150th celebrations. No one here was asked what they wanted,” said Nelson Joannette, a history professor at the university. . . . "Imagine any other marginalized group walking around campus and seeing those 22 monuments celebrating great white leaders. What kind of message does that communicate? It flies in the face of what contemporary universities are about." 
I talked to my grade 10 students about this issue. They were in full support of the project, but their arguments are telling. They more vocal respondents fell along two lines:

1. "If it's free, then it's good. If someone wants to give you something for free, you'd be crazy not to take it."

The fact that it's privately funded takes away some of the concern of taxpayers, but it raises a different issue. Should wealthy benefactors be allowed to dictate the art that permanently represents our city? As Joannette suggests, if we want to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada, our voices should all be heard with respect to what type of display is warranted. Our voices were heard once in this city, and now the majority that protested the statues is being ignored.

2. "I don't see a problem with the First Nation issue. It was so long ago, who really cares about that anymore?"

Yikes! And, exactly. People don't get the connections and the long strings of history that sit behind the current occupation of land, and they don't understand problems with some of the policies of the past that have left a lasting negative impact on our nation. Missing and Murdered Indigenous  Women and the disproportional number of Indigenous people in jails are just skimming the surface of the number of problems created by colonization.

I recognize that we have to understand people's lives within a historical context, much as I praise some of Plato's work even though he was cool with slavery. We can't attack their entire body of work because of one piece. But some PMs don't have much of a piece to praise, certainly not compared to other Canadians focused more on social reform than personal status.

Some American cities have been taking down confederate memorials. It's curious we'd want to put up something that could be seen as glorifying a dark history, just as our neighbours are becoming more enlightened.

And our own Luisa D'Amato tried to explain the problems with the opposition to the statue project:
It will be one of the ways that visitors, students and employees get information, both critical and supportive, about the behaviour and legacy of that prime minister. Perhaps a conversation or two will happen. "We're not trying so much to celebrate as we've tried to document," said one of the proponents of this privately funded project, Jim Rodger.
They want to display the PMs with warts and all to elicit further discussion about our history. The problem with Rodger's argument is that he wants to change the meaning of erecting a statue, but we can't arbitrarily change the symbolic vernacular of a culture. We don't look at statues and think, "This group of people obviously wanted to discuss this person further." Culturally, we understand statues to be a commemoration. We can't just change that definition as it suits us.

We should celebrate people who have sacrificed and fought in order to help our nation flourish. Terry Fox, the Famous Five, and Shannen Koostachin are good examples. Being a politician that gets to the top through trickery, dumb luck, or honourable means shouldn't be enough to warrant a bronze legacy. Some politicians fight for the top position for power and prestige, not necessarily to make Canada a better nation. Title alone doesn't make one laudable.

If the statues are about learning about history, then a smaller version of the statues could sit in a display travelling through museums and galleries across Canada. As a temporary display, people will come to see the statues when they're near where they can remark on the trajectory through one PM to another and look for the hidden iconography of the pieces. Maybe they can end up housed in the foyer of Kitchener's The Museum. In a museum, they are clearly an educational tool. As public art, they are celebrations of former Canadians. There's no getting around that.

D'Amato closes with these words: "When people at a university start instantly dismissing something because it makes them uncomfortable, that makes me uncomfortable."

Professors openly discussing and debating an issue in the news is not the same as "instantly dismissing" them. They're presenting their views for larger consideration, and the debate will continue.

But what's really interesting to me about this issue, is how passionately I feel about it. Beyond all the rational discourse, it should be noted that I am shaking with rage at the very idea that a statue commemorating Stephen Harper could go up in MY city. After all he has done to destroy what made Canada great, if he is to be celebrated here, then I WILL MOVE!

Just sayin'.

ETA this on Cornwallis statue in Halifax.

On Population Control and Freedom at Any Cost

China has officially ended its one-child policy, and the New York Times argues against any similar policy ever existing again.
The Chinese government’s decision to end its draconian one-child policy is a pragmatic economic move, but it’s hardly sufficient. The government continues to control personal freedom by limiting the number of children a couple can have to two, an abhorrent policy that no nation should have.
The editorial talks about limiting freedoms like it's the worst possible action, but there are far worse consequences if we don't. If no nation should limit their population, then we'll have some bigger problems in our hands. We have to begin to control our population, and asking people nicely isn't going to do squat! I explained the logic behind this a whole other blog ago. Most of us just aren't made to care about the entire world, so the masses have to be forced to do what's right for the greater good.

In my school board, they've implemented a 75/5 paper reduction policy starting a year ago: we're to decrease paper use by 75% within the next five (now four) years. Stats were run, and I tried to convince the keeper of the numbers to accidentally leak them - or, better, openly post them and warn that updated numbers will be posted quarterly.  He already suggested that we limit printing to 600 pages/year, and there was an uproar. With stats in hand, he's clarified that most people are doing that already, but a few - about 10 in 80 teachers - are way, way above those numbers. Unfortunately he's not quite comfortable posting those names yet, but I think it's the only thing that will work.

As I walked out of that paper meeting, another teacher said we'll never get teachers to do this - even with on-line resources in our back pockets - literally. But back in the day when I started teaching, we rarely photocopied anything because we had one mimeograph machine (Remember smelling the paper to get a buzz?), and it took forever to make copies. We got by without copies and without computers. So it's entirely possible to reduce paper use, but the masses won't do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It won't happen until it's forced to happen. People will complain for a couple years because change is hard, but then they'll get used to the new rules, and life will go on with a few more trees in the ground (and more money at the board office).

If we don't create some rules around population, it will be truly disastrous. Suzuki illustrates that here:

After reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, I summarized his research on the reality of not having any pro-active population control:
Diamond moved on to collapse through genocides with a caution that it's not enough to increase food production to feed the world; we must simultaneously rein in population growth (312). Many genocidal studies focus on ethnic hatred as the catalyst that must be prevented, but Diamond points out the real problem is typically over-population of an area. He looks at Rwanda in which, in 1993, 40% of citizens were living below the poverty level, and 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home unable to live on their own or start their own families. ”It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources" (326). Population pressure, the strain of hunger is the powder in the keg, and the ethnic division was the match. “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs” (328).
It seems pretty clear that either we can choose to allow genocides to reduce populations, or we consciously prevent more children from being born. I think we'd all like to choose that second option... except when it directly affects us, which is much of the time.

The reality is that if we want to have a healthy planet for our grandchildren to live on, we have to stop having so many grandchildren. We have to spread the word to anyone from 15 to 40 to have fewer children, and from 40 up to tell their children to stop having children at all, or maybe to have one among the lot of them. I have three kids, and, so far,  I've convinced two of them not to have any kids. But intelligent friends my age laugh at this suggestion. They just don't believe this is a real problem that they need to actually act on in any real way. So we need something else to get us going.

We could try incentives, and I suggested to my grade 12s that we offer free education in exchange for voluntary permanent sterilization. We'd have to do it when they're 18-20, before they get a strong biological urge to reproduce. It's young for them to make such an important decision, but that's the point. I think it's the only time we could conceivable (ha!) convince people to willingly give up their right to have children. They pointed out that if we tie incentives to university, then we might reduce population in the smartest group of people and potentially end up with an Idiocracy:

So that plan might not work.

We need to change our entire mythology around freedom in order to survive another couple generations. We need to stop thinking that freedom should come at any cost. I said as much after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. In that film, the bad guy rationed water, and our hero opened the valves for all to drink freely. Fast-forward twenty years, and we'd see the fatal short-sightedness of that style of leadership.

We're back to Plato's Republic where control = freedom, except it doesn't have to turn out like 1984 or a Nazi regime. Quite the opposite. We can have a very transparent government explain the consequences of our actions and suggest a series of reforms that limit our reproductive freedoms. We can be asked to vote on the best method of limitation, but we have to limit it in some way. In Canada, we're happy to limit the freedom to buy automatic weapons and the freedom to elicit others towards hatred of an identifiable group of people. We force teenagers to go to school against their will if necessary. We've banned the sale of sugary foods in schools, and some cities have successfully banned water bottles. Now can we learn to recognize the wisdom of limiting our freedom to reproduce even though it fights against a significant biological instinct? That's the question this generation must answer. Immediately.

But what about our pensions and jobs and the economy? We can't have an economy without a tolerable planet to put it on. It's too late to look on this as a 50/50 choice. Environmental legislation has to win or else we all lose.