Fur-Trader and City-Slicker Frolic in the Woods

cabin-in-a-bag

My cabin-in-a-bag, imported from Europe at a hefty price. Worth every penny. The fur-trader would not approve.

When I was a child, my love of the outdoors knew no bounds. This wasn’t always an easy feat given the extremes in the weather in these parts. Where I live there are days in winter where the mercury dips to temperatures colder than Mars. In late July it can get as hot as Dubai. There is an eighty-degree swing in temperature from the hottest and coldest days of the year.

In spring when you leave for work in the morning you have to pack for the four distinct ecosystems the weather will produce throughout the day. Fall is spectacular and brilliant, but comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Summer and winter are typically the heroes and villains of the year. 

Essentially, it’s a challenge to be an avid outdoorsman where I live. Yet, I rarely complained about the ridiculous weather as a child – only when my mother forbade me to go outdoors because of conditions that were too extreme. The outdoors and I, and all the whimsical seasons she brought into my life, had a mad love affair. We were inseparable.

That love affair sent my mates and I to the woods to go camping, year after year. In my late teens a campsite for the weekend was an ideal escape from our young adult prisons. A tent in the woods was the venue for treacherous feats of binge drinking, chain smoking, setting forest-endangering bonfires to keep us warm, and making as many beasts with bare backs as our whiskey-dicks would allow. After all the debauchery, one needed only to crawl five feet to get home, and didn’t have to navigate dangerous stairs or nosey parents before crashing into bed.

Back in the day, there was nothing like being suffocated by the stifling air as the morning sun pierced through the trees and turned a cheap tent into a convection oven. By eight in the morning sleeping became insufferable to all but those who had succumbed to alcohol poisoning. Inevitably, you woke up spooning your buddy, slightly dejected it wasn’t a lovely conquest, or an ugly one, a familiar morning hard-on poking your backside.

essential-ingredients

Essential ingredients for camping: insect repellent, Coleman stove, and Belgian beer.

There were no deluxe, three feet thick air mattresses. We toughed up bruised ribs or lacerated hips, the affliction brought about by our drunken dead weight pressing up against tree roots, logs, stones, or other objects poking through the tent floor. These went unnoticed as the tent was erected in haste, as an afterthought, when several alcoholic beverages had already been consumed and the urgency to resume drinking rushed the job. Many times one of us would wake up after that first night, reeling in pain, look under the tent to identify our tormentor, and say “I found the tent pegs we couldn’t find” or “Hey, there’s the lawn chair we were looking for.”

Never was there a sense of anxiety before a planned camping trip about the weather, bugs, or the sufficiency of suitable food to sustain us. The unabashed joy expected of the great outdoors was never undone by unforeseen natural disasters. Running out of beer and cigarettes in the middle of an evening, when nobody would be sober enough to drive to the nearest one-horse town to stock up, was the worst of all disasters any of us could imagine.

No showers? No modern flush toilets? No food? No cooking utensils? No problem. The lake, the bush, hot dogs and buns, and a stick, respectively, in that order. 

Camping afforded countless opportunities to go to the woods, drink like a fish, not worry about a DUI, and smell like ass without social repercussions. It was a house to call your own, even if it leaked in the rain, was pointless in the cold, and a sauna in the heat. It was a paragon of independence and unabashed, orgiastic bliss.

Well, I’m not a young man anymore. I can  binge-drink at home if I want to, which I don’t because I have people who depend on me to not be hungover the next day. Being cold to the bone feels worse at my age – bonfires notwithstanding. I prefer real saunas to sauna-like conditions created by poorly ventilated tents and gasping, flatulent adults. Smelling like ass bothers me, even if there are no repercussions. Sleeping on the hard ground leaves me with injuries that last for days and make me angry. Having to see and smell the bodily waste left by the hundred people who used the toilet before me is horrifying. I hate cooking without the proper utensils and can’t stand doing dishes without running water and a proper sink. Ideal weather, a modern bathroom, and a shower within at least a hundred-metre radius of where I sleep matters.

I’ve gone soft, basically, which means more often than not camping sucks.

vestibule

The vestibule. The city-slicker insisted on a few essential items: toaster, caffetieria with fine-ground Italian coffee, and kettle for afternoon tea.

I spent years living in Vancouver, a petit-bourgeois urban jungle where locals wear lululemon yoga pants and Starbucks is the main source of hydration. People smell good in Vancouver. They don’t go camping in tents for leisure, they go skiing in Whistler or take a lap around English Bay in a thirty-foot yacht. They care about the poor but don’t wish to live like them, even if it is in the woods. Plus, there are grizzly bears and cougars which fabric walls does nothing to discourage.

I’ve also travelled the world on business, having jetted off countless times to exotic lands on business class. I drank too much champagne on a jaunt to Shanghai, gorged on smoked salmon on a sixteen-hour flight to Hong Kong, and slurped coquilles St Jacques en route to Kuala Lumpur. I complained about the in-flight entertainment from Frankfurt to Amman and sat beside a movie star from Beirut to Britain. I’ve stayed in hotels where the pillows are as soft as I imagine the ground is in heaven. Just like in heaven, they put chocolates on your pillow at night, and turn your bed because you might be too exhausted after a long day to do it yourself.

It was grand, travelling without a tent. And you know what? I liked it. I liked it a lot. I was easily seduced.

It’s hard to fathom. I’m the guy who, when he was a young teenager, did canoe trips for days on end paddling deep into the woods, year after year. In those summers of my adolescence I lived like a fur trader, and loved it.

We ate “trail lunches” not wanting to stop as we had miles and miles to paddle each day. We didn’t see civilization for several days. There was no toilet paper. Lake water was the main ingredient in our dehydrated rations. There were no gadgets to make roughing it a little less rough. Getting a signal was furthest from our minds. There was no need of Wi-Fi to post boastful selfies on social media. The experience was imprinted in our memories because we were present to actually live it as it was happening. The idea of sharing it with others who weren’t there and whose hollow judgments would rob the moments of their pure bliss was never a consideration.

There is a vociferous element of that youthful fur-trader who keeps telling me I still love the outdoors. But his voice has been muted by the fleeting luxuries enjoyed by the city-slicker adult. The fur-trader and the city-slicker eventually had to arrive at a suitable compromise if camping was to figure prominently in my summer plans.

The city-slicker bought a top of the line tent on-line and shipped it to Canada from Europe. It has multiple rooms, windows, and can withstand a hurricane. Essentially, it’s a cabin in a bag. There are few public campsites meant for tents that can accommodate its size. I had to buy a trailer hitch and a rack to cart it to the woods because it took up too much room in my car.

For three to four times every summer the city-slicker, fur trader and his two kids pack up the car until the rear bumper is nearly dragging on the ground and head to the woods. We are going camping, by golly, because the fur-trader has convinced the city-slicker we’re going to love it. The city-slicker can’t help but be wistful there will be no flight attendants to rouse him awake two-thirds into the drive and serve him filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and cabernet sauvignon.

When we get to the campsite it’s dusk because it took longer to pack up the car than I thought it would – as it always does – and it’s raining, or there’s an electrical storm, or the mosquitoes are swarming as we erect the tent which, because it’s a cabin in a bag, is not easy to erect and takes longer than the brochure said, so my morale is in tatters as one of my teenaged kids stands there not knowing what to do, making me mad, making me get testy with him, so he says “Dad, you’re doing it again” and I’m, “Jesus! What am I doing!!” and he says “Remember when you told me to tell you when you’re being impatient?” which makes me want to shove a tent peg up his ass, so I say “sorry kiddo, dad’s frustrated” with gritted teeth and think ‘screw it I’m having a beer, or maybe five,’ then notice I’ve got eight hundred mosquito bites on the five square inches of flesh I have exposed so I yell to my other son “Hand me the fucking insect repellent!” and realize it’s almost ten and we’ve only eaten Doritos since late this afternoon when I said “We’ll eat when we get there” and drove past seven McDonald’s on the way out of town, so now we’re all hungry but the tent isn’t up, the air mattresses haven’t been filled, the cooler is still packed deep in the car and I can’t have a beer, we need to get the tent up to flee the mosquitoes, I’m exhausted, it’s not even the first hour of camping, and I want a fucking hotel room with a chocolate on my pillow.

It didn’t used to be this way. The fur-trader never had to constantly ward off a reproachful inner dialogue at every minor annoyance while camping. The fur-trader was rarely annoyed by camping. The fur-trader understood the glory of being outdoors and wouldn’t demean it with bourgeois complaints like “the cooler doesn’t keep the wine well-chilled.”

When outdoors, the city-slicker is aggravated by that which falls short of ideal, which is everything. The bugs, the weather, the blaring, shitty, out-dated music blasting out of the truck with the eight track player in the adjacent site. Or the witless paroxysms of the drunken armchair philosopher three sites over, which continue unimpeded until he topples over in his lawn chair at three in the morning, sadly, not into the fire so I can avoid hearing him the next night. Or the ice melting precipitously in the cooler, bathing all my food in water, making for soggy cheese, soggy steak, and soggy lettuce. Instead of offering moral support, all the smug city-slicker can say is, “You should have rented a cottage.”

Christ, I hate that guy sometimes. Thanks to him, my basic needs for comfort require more energy and planning if a camping excursion stands a chance of being slightly enjoyable. Simple matters, like deciding on a healthy menu to include food that will store well in a cooler, is exhausting.

Eating hot dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which I did as a teenager, is out of the question. My colon is way too old for that shit. The other aging pipes in my body don’t much like it either. My body demands lettuce, yogurt, and fillets of salmon to run at a general state of sub-optimality. After years of being subjected to outright contempt, my body would surely exact revenge were I to pour copious amounts of toxic food and drink down my gullet. It would do so, not by way of a hangover or vomiting, as it did when I was a young fur-trader, but with cancer or heart disease.

In the throes of January I am pondering these issues as I decide on upcoming summer plans. The endeavour is daunted by memories of last summer, which produced the most dreadful conditions for camping. On one of our camping trips we had to move a tree that had fallen right across the campsite before setting up our cabin-tent. There was a terrible storm the night before we arrived, and it returned the next two nights. I slept with one eye open, my ears trained to every sound in the surrounding trees. I listened intently, and didn’t sleep a wink for three nights. On our fourth night, I was so surly the bears didn’t dream of scavenging on my site.

What’s also pertinent to this decision is the fact I live in a prairie swampland. Even when the weather is ideal for camping, there are other natural phenomena to spoil the party; mosquitoes being the most insidious. For a mosquito, my hometown and its surroundings are like Vegas for a mobster; like Florida in winter for obnoxious French Canadians; like the Republican Party for rich douche-bags looking to screw the poor and middle class. When a mosquito wins the lottery, or wins the World Series, or has a dying relative with a bucket list, the place they all want to be is the place I call home.

bedrooms-and-living-area

Living area and bedrooms. That’s a zero-gravity chair in the foreground and my Mysore rug on the ground at left. The three rooms in the back are separated.

In my town, the Chief Entomologist is a celebrity whose status is on par with the Kardashians. Every day in late spring, he appears on television like an oracle, sharing his premonitions about the mosquito pandemic to come. He’s like a snake oil salesman to take any credit for good news. Like a Kardashian he can’t seem to resist the spotlight, even if it means, in a bad year, everyone will know the face of the bum who failed to make the outdoors bearable when his plan to exterminate mosquitoes in a swamp – which is doomed to fail – failed. By mid-July in a bad year, the townsfolk storm city hall with pitchforks demanding the city be carpet bombed with birth-defect inducing chemicals so they can enjoy a backyard barbecue without having to wear a hazmat suit to maintain their sanity.

Despite the mosquitoes summer can usually be counted on to deliver at least a few months of dry, sunny conditions and provides countless opportunities for outdoor enjoyment. In a place where winter can last up to five months, the summer reprieve is a psychological imperative upon which one comes to depend. Certainly, we expect winter to be abominable, and as payment for having survived winter’s gauntlet, we expect the weather from June to mid-September to make amends. It’s essential to displace the torment of winters that last as long as a geological era.

The foundations of our collective self-delusion crumble when summer doesn’t do what is expected. For the past few years, summer hasn’t stuck to the script. Last summer’s dreadful performance had me facing this winter not having fully displaced memories of the fresh hell of last winter.

The fur trader is telling me to change my tune, to get a new attitude, and get back into the woods this summer. He’s tapping into my faint memories of the carefree, happy-go-lucky child he represents.

The city-slicker is looking out the window at the third blizzard of the winter – incredulous because it’s only January – castigating me for moving back to the god-forsaken arctic tundra that is my hometown. He’s resigned to the fact that, because he convinced me to blow a wad of cash on a high-end tent, we’re going to be camping again, but works tirelessly to convince me that my Hyundai sucks and should be traded up for a BMW. That way, as we camp like squatters do, we can at least pretend we’re back in Vancouver when the mosquitoes, arriving by the billions for their dream vacation, will have ruined ours.

Blackberry Burn Unit

My Precious Blackberry

I work in a place that makes me want to shove everyone’s precious little blackberry up their arse. Scores of articles by business gurus have been written about what an electronic albatross blackberries are in a workplace. It compounds the ill-effects of those with an inability to prioritize and communicate effectively, rendering their blackberry use a veritable Bermuda Triangle for organizational productivity. The relentless, exhausting, and unbalanced work life of the white-collar employee point to a single villain: the blackberry.

One of the big reasons I have resisted calls to advance to the management ranks where I work is my dread for having to carry Satan’s Anvil around after hours. Throughout my career I’ve had various assignments where part of the job was letting my masters affix that mobile noose around my neck. Inevitably, after a couple weeks, usually in the late evening, I would crack. A snide e-mail; a “did you get my message” text or a witless jab would compel me to throw the little buzzing bastard into something – a wall, a couch, a floor, the toilet – hoping its destruction would make the nightmare cease. Kudos to RIM, their blackberries are much more durable than an iPhone

For me, a blackberry is an obvious productivity winner in the right hands. And there’s the rub, isn’t it? The problem with blackberries isn’t the blackberry itself. It’s the way people use it, like they’re a thirteen year old who ate seventeen bowls of smarties. This is especially acute after hours. It should come with an instruction manual to prevent its irresponsible use as a torture device against co-workers. To be truly educational, it would have to be titled something like, “Remember, if Everything is Urgent, Nothing is Urgent.”

Anyone who is an underling in a large, hierarchical organization has had their soul crushed under the stampede of elephantine stupidity that afflicts senior managers with a blackberry in their hands. For example, a Director where I work, let’s call him Stu, takes his blackberry into the bathroom with him Monday evening. There, he gets an e-mail from Joe who says “hey, did you know that such-and-such is on the agenda for the meeting of the Big Cheeses next Monday?”

After a panicked squeeze of his anal sphincter, Stu responds “We’re on it.” He resolutely flushes the toilet, as if he’s about to storm the ramparts on D-Day, and sends a frantic e-mail to my Manager saying, “Get your minion edmund to get me that that thing by Friday, cuz he writes good and knows stuff. Priority.”

I get to the office Tuesday morning, open my e-mail and see the message from my Manager. “Can you do this thing by Friday?”

I roll my eyes when I see the times the e-mail exchanges below hers took place. Relieved, I know I can do the thing by the end of Wednesday without affecting other deadlines. I’ll beat my deadline for this task by miles. Then, I reconsider turning it in early. That’ll only give people extra time to start pushing more Sisyphean boulders up the hill and watching them roll over my soul on the way down. Nope, better to stick to their deadline.

For me, the issue is never whether I can do the work, it’s always how much time my plantation owners have decided to give me to write the report they always believe should be in hand moments after they’ve decided they want it. Most of them, because they’ve spent years pseudo-writing on blackberries, are barely literate. They have forgotten the mental energy and effort that goes into writing coherently.

Like an obedient slave, I say “Yes, Mem’sahib, I’ll get that report done along with the other ten reports that were urgent yesterday.” I get back to my cubicle, poised for hours of frenzied tapping on my keyboard.

It turns out that, amidst the thirty-six conversations Joe was having between dinner, his nightly bowel movement, and Late Night talk shows, he mysteriously got confused about the thing the Big Cheeses were going to talk about. The thing was actually needed sooner than expected. My boss stopped me as I was about to break for breakfast and said that thing wasn’t due Friday, it was due in two hours.

“Say what now massa?” I said, stopping in the middle of joyfully humming gospel tunes as I was loosening the chains on my ankles.

“Stu got confused and Joe needs it by noon. Is that going to be a problem, boy?”

She didn’t say ‘boy’ but she may as well have. Nobody gave a flying fig about whether the request was a problem for me. In a toxic, blackberry-addicted culture everyone’s got problems.

“YES IT IS GOING TO BE A FUCKING PROBLEM! I NEED THE NUMBERS FROM FINANCE BEFORE I CAN START!” I said, among other things that would leave a long-haul trucker beaming with pride. It was a volcanic eruption that singed everyone in the vicinity and burned my boss to a crisp. I dressed her in gauze and sent her to the local burn unit for treatment.

I am usually fairly Zen in the office. I’m the guy who meditates; who does yoga; who doesn’t let work get under his skin. But there isn’t a mantra in the world to restrain my warrior spirit when high-ranking people thoughtlessly stir up panic because they’re in the throes of a wicked blackberry overdose. When they’re tripping out, they mete out unclear, aimless tasks in the heat of the moment, using brusque language and terse tone; passive aggressively instilling urgency among underlings. This, they believe, is how they’ll get what they want, when they want it.

When it hits my inbox it just looks like someone believes my life is at his beck and call. We both know his grasp of the thing he is paid to be in command of is far more shallow than mine, so a part of me desires to go Shaolin Temple on his ego. Nobody owns my black ass, especially when folks higher up need it to cover their flank. The next best thing to giving a beat-down for that kind of disrespect is to unleash scatological invective around the office so everyone, especially Stu and Joe, knows my Zen is being messed with.

Deep-down I hope Stu, Joe, and others like him are not intentionally trying to be assholes. I suspect they honestly believe everyone will attach the same degree of urgency as they do to the random thoughts popping up in their mind when they’re sitting on the porcelain throne. They fail to consider how easily an issue might seem to be “hot button” while in the vulnerable position of having their pants around their ankles and their hides laid bare. They should stop reacting to their fears in haste, and allow the time for wisdom to intervene. Ultimately, issues emerging on a blackberry will come to be synonymous with the other thing that appears when a man is sitting on the toilet, and can be dispensed with in a way befitting of them both: with a flush.

Alas, I am well aware the sub-text of this affected busy-ness. When people aren’t at the office, leering at their blackberry provides a legitimate escape from the perils of domesticity. At home or in the grocery store, big-wigs are just Regular Joes to their friends, family, and disgruntled wage slaves who bag their groceries without an iota of awe for their rank at the office. Without people to boss around or sycophants to kiss their rings, they feel unimportant, taken for granted, and ineffectual. So, out comes the blackberry, and within moments of opening the first e-mail, the feeling of indispensability to their organization is just the fix their ego craved.

I don’t necessarily blame the Stus and Joes of this world for needlessly escalating issues left, right, and centre. I blame blackberry for not writing up that instruction manual. I blame them for failing to install a kill-switch to shut the device off when the tone of discussion crescendoes and the content is below a minimum threshold of relevance. They could have cautioned Managers that abuse of the device has a hallucinogenic effect, causing them to see fire and brimstone between the lines of mundane “FYI” e-mails.

The blackberry can turn a trickle of pithy, pointless, uninformed exchanges into a cascading wave of collective anxiety, and then into a flash flood that destroys all the towns and villages in its path. Each successive e-mail ignited by a passing comment sent to a distribution list fuels the fury. Users become mad, jabbing pins in their eyes with every opened e-mail. The investment of time and ego into the exchanges renders everyone blind as they throw a well-heeled operation into the inferno ignited by the tinder of mediocrity and the spark of thumbs typing unintelligible e-mails.

The ubiquity of this phenomenon suggests there are too many executives incapable of effectively vetting the countless issues hitting their desk. The resort to delegating all those after-hours e-mails without thinking any of them through is a failure to take full responsibility of their role as arbiters of organizational priorities. In the aggregate, such behaviour becomes a budgetary drain. Nobody – taxpayers, shareholders, or stakeholders – should abide this management style because it ignores the mandate to utilize an organization’s finite resources for purposeful ends.

Too many high-ranking folks with blackberries are oblivious to an obvious fact of human nature arising from the asymmetry in pay and level between they and their underlings. They seem to think that, because they tethered themselves to a little computer that delivers them so many problems at inopportune times, those of us below must deal with the consequences. On this point, their emotions get the better of their common sense. No executive should wish to demonstrate how out of their depth they are by delegating to underlings issues they should easily dispense with. In delegating everything downward, it appears as though they are ill-equipped to say “this is a non-issue, and the buck stops here.”

I grant, it takes intestinal fortitude and good judgement to do that. Theoretically, this is why executives are so well-compensated. When reactive, blackberry-induced  issues from on high pile up on my desk for ultimate resolution it sends two messages. First, it suggests that others want me to devote as much time and energy to the organization as they do, because there’s no way I can do all I am asked in regular business hours. It’s a contemptuous proposition considering I am not paid for that level of commitment and purposely remain in a lower-level position to avoid it.

Second, it tells me that executives believe the buck stops with me, not them. If that’s the case, they can hand me the keys to their office, endorse their paycheque and give it to me, and erase their name from the top box of the org chart and write mine in its place. Oh yeah, and I’ll take their blackberry too. I will place it under the wheels of my car and drive over it.

There’s a reason France banned the use of work blackberries after certain hours in the evening. The way people have come to utilize what was supposed to be a time-management and productivity tool has become the epitome of twenty-first century lunacy. If it keeps up, my organization will have to install a burn unit for the infernos created by the urgency-obsession of those whose blackberry use smothers an organization’s most vital resource: the time, energy, and motivation of its skilled employees.

There is Some Sh*t I Will Not Eat

Bigots for Bucks

A morning radio host where I live was recently suspended after posting videos caricaturing people who live in a particular neighbourhood in the city. It is a lower middle class area besieged by vice and poverty-related crime and also home to a sizeable share of the city’s Aboriginals. Meanwhile, the radio host is a white middle-aged guy who grew up in an upper middle-class white neighborhood. The optics of a white guy mining laughs at the expense of the city’s poor and disenfranchised were tragic, especially since our city was, just a year ago, rated by a Canadian national news magazine as “The Most Racist City in Canada.”

I am aware how difficult it is for regular, middle-class white men to have “political correctness,” lorded over their heads since the nineties. It’s as if society is suggesting they are all bigots, forcing the whole to make amends for the excesses of the few. As a man, I feel the instant sense of similar recoiling when confronted with the idea that I am part of the “rape culture.” But then I resist the urge to soothe a bruised ego by man-splaining to generations of suppressed female voices why their “so-called grievances” are way off base – because I said so. Instead, I try to remain open to the possibility of a worldview different than that historically fashioned by generations of self-aggrandizing dicks.

The idea of “political correctness” is to encourage us to make a mental leap out of our situated selves, and examine our words and actions as if from the perspective of the “other” person BEFORE we unleash them. If the radio host in my town had paused for one second to ask himself “would I think this was funny if I were an Aboriginal?” my sense is he would never have posted the video.

A moment of “political correctness” would have prevented him inflicting a significant insult on countless Aboriginal Canadians in my town, many of whom are rightly sitting on the fence about the merits of joining white society. It would also have prevented many from believing him to be an unabashed racist. That is the point of political correctness; not to tar white men as bigots, but to compel us all to look before we leap, because our tolerance for insensitivity has worn thin. It is a word of caution that a nasty fate awaits he who is unable to restrain his mouth from uttering whatever bigoted detritus was  deposited in the recesses of his mind by the infinite possible sources in our culture.

This is one simple example of the reason why a strong social ethic that frowns on bigotry is still necessary. I’m no fan of “political correctness” because it has been appropriated by the very douchebags it was meant to counter, and they have masterfully turned it into a slur to rival the daily barrage of racist, misogynist, xenophobic slurs they unleash from their intellectual anuses. It’s a sensible idea made senseless by the those who extol their claim to “freedom” with bigoted, craven bombast like a noxious-smelling badge of honour.

The counterpoint to the idea that “freedom” bestows unbounded rights to slander and incite hatred of the marginalized, is the notion that the establishment of social norms against blatant insensitivity is necessary to protect the powerless from wanton bullying. It prevents oppressive biases in the dominant collective mind from being matter-of-factly vomited out of our mouths and victimizing innocent, disenfranchised bystanders. It is to ensure our societies are inclusive and don’t condone behaviours that alienate and exclude large swaths of its people. Insensitive, hurtful speech is a passive aggressive way to discourage the disenfranchised from opting-in to society. Mean-spirited words matter; in powerful, irresponsible hands they propagate the systematic, violent demise of those they target.

Anyone who is on the receiving end of bigoted knee-slapping has asked themselves this question at various points in their lives “is my desire to participate in society really worth the mental anguish to endure this?” In a pluralistic society that recognizes the rights and equality of all, nobody should have to face this kind of bar to their success. Since laws against bigotry are out of line, the only tool left is that of a strong ethic of social resistance to deeds that are divisive and damaging to social harmony.

I find it revealing when someone blasts “political correctness” as a bane that forces their mouth shut all the time. It says something damning about the content of a mind if every thought it produces is so offensive it shouldn’t be uttered. Here’s a test; if a part of you has to ask “is this offensive?” it probably is. This should be a source of relief; it means the part of your brain other animals lack functioned exactly as nature intended. It will continue to do so if you regularly consult it and pay it heed. The energy needed to resist the social ethic discouraging jokes that directly or indirectly denigrate women, minorities, Muslims, or foreigners, is much better spent examining why it is your mind is teeming with misogyny, racism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia in the first place.

On this subject, one of my favourite bloggers suggested there are a few social issues that are out of bounds for humourous treatment – rape, drug addiction, and mental illness among them. On the surface it’s hard to disagree, but my sense is there are no absolutes in this either. There is always context and intention – who is making the joke, how, and to whom. My feeling is, if you were never on the inside, don’t make the joke.

It’s why there are some jokes that, if I were a white guy, I simply wouldn’t make. True, it is your right to make the joke. The so-called dictates of “political correctness” are not trying to deprive you of those rights. But they will compel I or others to call you out as a bigot if you say something that is blatantly racist, intolerant, misogynist, or xenophobic. If you seek to poison mine and others existence with bigoted speech you should no longer expect to enjoy a consequence-free existence as you would have in another century.

I try not to make light of pain and suffering I haven’t personally experienced – it looks too much as though I’m laughing at another’s pain, which is deplorable. If I am lucky to garner a laugh at a serious social issue I see to it that it is at my expense alone. When I am lampooning any of the afflictions that dog me I try not to implicate all who share in the struggle. I talk about my issues in relation to me, and don’t presume anyone else experiences the issue similarly. I don’t know that I have always been successful in getting this right but I really try to think before I speak and hope the good part of my brain catches up when the bad parts of my mouth do the hundred-metre dash, as they are inclined from time to time.

It’s a delicate balance, but I believe it’s a risk worth taking. There are too many issues that need to be out in the open and one way to do so while reaching the widest segment of society is through humour. Avoiding conversations about the harsh truths of existence allows voices of ignorance to construct the narrative, with the risk of re-victimizing those who have drawn the short straw. I think there is merit in sharing our experiences, to reveal the truth of the human condition as, among other things, a constant engagement with calamity and despair. It’s a bummer, but it also puts the onus more squarely on ourselves to add joy wherever we can. If we can demonstrate we’ve lived through the downer moments, and do so in a lighthearted way, it elevates the hope in others that it is possible to find joy somewhere in our pain.

Blogs that explore personal subjects have been instrumental to increased self-compassion, even if the humorous approach does at times touch a raw nerve. Laughter is a non-threatening means by which people can be made to understand the pain around them, which they may inflame by their ignorance or insensitivity. The process of self-awareness is more likely to begin after a laugh than it is at the end of a righteous-indignant finger pointed. Throwing a pie in the face of your persecutor is a moral victory in some senses, it is a way to fight back without degenerating into violence.

Humour can be an effective tool to close a mind and to open it, which is why it is a double-edged sword in irresponsible hands. When we hold up the mirror to our worst selves it is the humour that will ensure we do not look away in shame. But it can also cause harm if the blade isn’t wielded skilfully when the treading needs to be more delicate. Sadly, some people just can’t help slicing and dicing everyone else around them for their own gain.

It seems we’re living in a time where society’s top notches are looking to protect their interests by recklessly sowing seeds of bigotry, giving life to poison trees that flourish in minds struggling with the perils of existence. It is important as decent human beings to resist the desperate cravings that sometimes propel us to swallow the easy meal served up as a balm to our insecurities. The indulgence in bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia is the worst of all the forbidden fruit we may choose to eat. For the fleeting pleasure of an outlet for your angst you will be reeling with ideas that rob you of your soul; that render you incapable of seeing yourself in your fellow humans; that subordinate the harm you inflict beneath the need for a laugh to quiet your tears.

Call it “political correctness” call it “decency.” Whatever you do, set your mind free from the self-serving bigotry that divides us all to line the pockets of the few. When they tell you “political correctness” is the thing that keeps you down, tell them “there is some shit I will not eat.”

 

Thanks a Lot Mom, I’m Chubby Again

Mansaf

Mansaf, Jordan’s signature dish. Stewed lamb, topped with jameed, a tangy sauce, served over rice and garnished with toasted almonds. Too delicious not to eat the whole thing.

My partner would be the first to admit she’s no fan of the gym. Luckily this isn’t a problem for her because she’s so petite and perfectly proportioned despite her, um, lack of enthusiasm for exercise. She’s also Sicilian, and is running in her sleep apparently, because her lack of exercise during waking hours hasn’t taken the ‘bella’ out of her ‘figura’.

I am glad to avoid having the awkward conversation when she asks “do I look fat in this?” If she were, my penchant for brutal honesty combined with the lack of a functioning mouth filtration system would not catch the words “a little actually, since you asked” before they had already passed foolishly from my lips, as so often happened in my failed marriage. Instead, I can honestly say “No, and I loathe you a little. Mia amore.”

It’s not fair. I could eat nothing besides lentils and celery for weeks but if I didn’t exercise like a hamster to burn off the calories I’d be husky, pudgy, hefty, have a great personality or any of the other euphemisms for “fat.”

My partner doesn’t exercise in the mornings before work because she’s not a morning person. I am the morning person. I am incredulous there are people in the world who aren’t, and I use The Force (of Annoying Persuasion) to win more people over from the Dark Side. Who wouldn’t respond favourably to morning musicals performed in their bedroom? Who doesn’t want their toast and coffee with a side of jazz hands, juggling poodles, and flaming sword-swallowing? Her, that’s who. “Lasciami in pace!” and a flicking of her hand from under her chin is all the response I get.

Zaatar

Za’atar Manakeesh. Za’atar is a combination of crushed oregano, thyme, marjoram, and toasted sesame seeds. You mix with olive oil and spread over the flatbread (manakeesh). I don’t know how I lived so long without it.

My morning enthusiasm is fuelled more by neurosis than genuine fervour. It’s hard to accept my partner hates me in the morning, that I will be doing yoga and meditation alone again, so I intensify the zeal to turn her frowns upside down, hoping she’ll at least leap out of bed at five thirty to kick me in the crotch. At least she’d be out of bed. Then, just then, maybe she’d work out with me. Alas, the gimmicks in my tickle trunk – which are legion – fall flat. Tough crowd, those Sicilians. It isn’t personal, she tells me, but I’m pretty certain “sta ‘zitto buffone” is not the nicest way to say “Please stop, dear.”

She works for a large multi-billion dollar profit-making bank by day. You’d think that she’d have a cushy life and drive Lambourghinis. Think again. She works the retail side. All the back office staff were cut because a few billion in net after-tax profits was underwhelming to the greedy bastards who run the place. She’s essentially a white-collar slave who works countless hours a day to get paid slightly more than a Wal-Mart greeter. So she’s almost dead when she comes home, which is why she can’t work out then either.

But you know what sucks most of all? She’s not fat, despite the nothing she does to burn off all the pasta, pannetoni, prosciutto, provolone, and other fattening foods beginning with the letter ‘p’ she routinely consumes. I mean, she’s not even a little chubby. Sure, in the winter months a barely noticeable undulation collects on her mid-section, what she and her mom call a “panza.” Pfft. You call that a belly. This, is a belly (lifting up my shirt).

At last, spring has finally descended upon the Arctic wasteland in the mid-western Canadian city my stupid ancestors set down roots to curse the following generations for their easier lives. This week, my petite, Sicilian girlfriend who burns calories in her sleep and hates me in the morning has been walking to and from work. Way to go, eh? Not really. I mean, she only lives about one kilometre away from her office. Because her legs aren’t much longer than the members of the Lollipop Guild it takes her about twenty-five minutes to walk that distance.

It seems to her like she’s doing a lot of walking, but she’s really not. She likes to meander and ogle other people’s gardens and landscaping to get ideas for her own house along the way. After walking a whole eight kilometres this week you know what happened to the little panza? Arrivederci. Addio. Ciao. That’s what. It was gone, as quickly as a tray of fresh cannoli in an Italian cucina.

It ain’t fair. The oxford shirts that hung breezily over my relatively firm, somewhat mildly-toned body last summer cling to me like spandex. The buttons struggling to hold my shirts closed are poised to take out an eye when they finally bust loose. When I button up my pants, the mini-muffin tops I had before have turned into sacks of dough big enough to make ciabatta bread for all fifty of my partner’s cousins. My hairy “gulo” springs out of my pants like a moron whenever I bend over – usually to pick up one of the poodles I’ve been juggling to impress mia amore in the mornings. Ah, there’s a smile, at my hairy, fat ass. I am learning she uses Sicilian words when she’s laughing at me.

The Hulk - My Clothes Don't Fit

Damn it, my clothes don’t fit.

Now, when I put on my favourite black blazer, once the centrepiece of my “If this doesn’t make one in twenty ladies take a second look, nothing will” outfit, it looks like I put it on just before I became The Incredible Hulk. ‘Don’t run ladies, I’m not angry, I’m just heftier than I once was. I swear, I’ll fit my clothes again by the end of summer.’

Damn, I did it again. I emotionally-ate my way through the winter. Frankly, I don’t know why people choose heroin or alcohol when you can just eat a whole extra large seven-meat pizza and be totally fine, at least until Type II diabetes spoils the party. Until then, you get to douse your existential pain in buckets of saturated fats, salt, and sugar.

I had a good excuse this winter; I did work stints in Jordan and Lebanon where I gorged on delicious, rich, restaurant-made middle eastern cuisine nearly every day because it was absolutely necessary. The word ‘no’ in Arabic was too counter-intuitive to really learn (‘Laa’), while the word for ‘yes’ (Na’am) sounded eerily similar to the noises oozing from my soul as I inhaled the delicious food. “Do I want the mega-shawarma platter for six? Nom, nom, nom.”

Kanafeh

Kanafeh. Nabulsi cheese swimming in syrupy water, topped with light coat of pastry, and sprinkles of pistacchio. One JD at a little stall in the gold souk in Amman. Delicious.

This winter my self-discipline and I took a flying leap into the Dead Sea, which made me grateful on many fronts. First of all, it was a remarkable experience. Second, my skin was really, really soft for days after. Third, and most importantly, when I was in the water I didn’t sink like a lead weight despite the fact I had gained fifteen pounds. Even though I looked fatter in front of my colleagues than I would had we done this months earlier, I splashed like a joyful gimp as I bobbed on the surface, wincing in pain as the salt-water instantly desiccated my eyeballs and began to singe my skin after twenty-five minutes. I didn’t sink. How fat could I really be?

Obviously, I was a little more sad than I had anticipated, which fueled my appetite. I was away at Christmas. I’ve never been away from my kids for the season. I missed them; I missed my partner. I heard countless tragic stories from the Syrian refugees I was meeting every day. The kids were so joyful and resilient, totally unaware of the gravity of their situation, what terrible fate they had barely averted. Their fathers were crestfallen for having to leave their home, a place where they toiled and made a good life for their families until it was stolen by war. As a man and a father it broke my heart to personally meet thousands of people uprooted by calamities I’d spent a lifetime watching on television. I was overwhelmed by the unexpected flurry of emotions.

So I ate. And ate. Then, I ate some more to keep the scary emotions at bay.

Shwarma, halloumi, and za’atar oh my.
Mansaf, and mezze, and zarb oh my.
Kanafeh, baklava, harissa, oh my.  
Fattoush, and falafel, and fwal, oh my.
Taouk, and tabbouleh, and toum, oh my.
Hommous, and hommous, and hommous, OH MY!

Shawarma

Shawarma. Instant ecstasy.

Masha’Allah they shun pork in the Middle East, otherwise I would have had to buy two seats on the plane to get me home to Canada. Who knew chick peas could taste so good? They probably use Dead Sea salt in that too. I smoked shisha because the fruity, spice-infused tobacco was more breathable than Amman’s exhaust-filled air, more pleasant than the putrefying garbage dotting Beirut streets since the country had been without a waste disposal contract since last August. Take note, Donald Trump, the Lebanese have discovered Beirut’s garbage makes an outstanding wall along the Syrian border, giving refugees pause before they hold their nose and flee into Lebanon, if a little more fastidiously these days than prior to last August.

This may come as a surprise, but eating in restaurants every single night, finishing off bags of Al Rifai™ crunchy-coated peanuts when dinner is postponed an hour because you’re stuck in Beirut traffic, drinking three beers with every meal because you’re on an expense account, and sleeping cat hours are not recommended for those in their forties interested in maintaining a decent body. That is, unless you’re my Sicilian girlfriend, in which case, carry on as you were. You’ll only need to do ten minutes of exercise to burn it off.

Almaza - better than tap water

Almaza. Lebanese beer. Since I didn’t trust the tap water in Beirut, I drank this instead, hydrating liberally with every meal.

Since I got back, I have resumed my regular routine. I do at least an hour of exercise every day, except for those mornings after I drink too much, stay up reading a good book, or watch entire seasons of something on Netflix. Other than those mornings, I do Ashtanga yoga. I go for long hikes with my kids. I walk home from work, which isn’t one kilometre but four. I go up and down the stairs instead of using the elevator at work. In other words, I work my gulo off to get back in shape, but it’s still there, leering out of my pants.

So now my partner gets to sleep in without any guilt because she exercised for a whole frickin’ week and her winter weight is gone. Meanwhile, I feel like a sausage all the time and am filled with self-consciousness whenever I bend over to tie my shoes. It may put a smile on my partner’s face, but it’s a pyrrhic victory.

It’s all my fault. I didn’t have to eat each and every heaping plate of Middle Eastern cuisine to the last bite, but I did because it was so bloody good and there are people starving in Africa. Hey. Wait a minute. That’s what my mother used to say when I was a kid so I wouldn’t waste food. That’s why I always feel such an intense need to lick my plate clean. She needed me to be chubby so she wouldn’t feel like a bad mother who starved her children. Dang it mom, look what you made me do again. I hope you’re happy.

The Coffee Sucks, Don’t Let Them Tell You Otherwise

Tim's - Shite

Tim Hortons coffee. Shite.

Two young women in the lineup at Starbucks behind me were talking about Tim Horton’s, a large Canadian coffee franchise that sells terrible coffee and crappy doughnuts. One of them said, “Hey, I love my Tim’s. I’m not a coffee snob.”

So, let me get this straight. Someone who, given the choice between a cappuccino made of fresh ground coffee beans exposed to the right amount of pressure, heat, and filtered water or a cup of Tim Horton’s made from low-grade coffee beans ground up and bagged seven weeks ago, sitting in a decanter that hasn’t been washed in three days, is a snob for choosing the cappuccino? That is some dicey logic m’lady.

I hear this kind of thing constantly in my town. It’s a working class town, full of people who take pride in being no frills, regular Joes. We’re a salt of the earth type ‘round these parts. Those interested in hoity-toity, frou-frou, whizz-bang anything are advised to just keep moving east to Toronto or Montreal. Most days it’s what I love about where I come from. If you’re a stranger or if you’re new to town, folks here will bend over backwards to help you out even if, at the outset, they don’t like the looks of you. If you’re standing at a bus stop you are guaranteed a conversation about the weather or how crappy the hockey team is playing this year. If you’re stuck in an elevator there will be no awkward silences because everyone will give their two cents on the situation. You will know every minute you’re not alone.

At the same time, beneath the folksy-town charm there’s a smothering, conformist leitmotif that is unhealthy in the grand scheme. We love country music; not the Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, Roy Orbison good stuff, but the schmaltzy pop-oriented stuff. We like getting drunk, not as a by-product of an event where drinking happens, but as leisure in itself (like sitting in a garage), chugging back the cheapest, blandest pilsener beer to achieve the dubious aim.

We love our large, gas guzzling, parking-lot hogging, lane encroaching pickup trucks, even though most of us don’t need to haul bales of hay anywhere. A sports jersey and baseball hat is the weekend uniform for men over the age of thirty-five. We love lining up for shit coffee. You get the idea. These are the things we do where I live. Back in my twenties, I came up with a term for those who were devout adherents to these key elements of ‘folksy’ in my town: “ham’n eggers”.

I don’t disavow any of these local traditions or “ham’n eggers” per se. I love binge-drinking as I watch Canada win another World Cup of hockey. If you need to drive through snowbanks, nothing will do better than a half-tonne. And I absolutely love ham and eggs for breakfast. It’s divine. I love people in my town for who they are. I’ve lived in a big city with poseurs awash in fancy suits, name-brand gotch, who adorn their personas with elements of a fantastic life purchased on credit. It seemed mostly to impress the mirrors on the walls. Frankly, I much prefer the “ham’n eggs” of my town.

On the other hand, affixing of the label “snob” upon those of us who embrace things not ham and egg is a bit passive aggressive, isn’t it? Throughout my life, I’ve been variously called out for liking classical music, reading books with no pictures, talking about philosophy, doing yoga, meditating, not really caring about professional sports, or having an avowed interest in what goes on in the world beyond the wheat fields hugging my town. There’s always the insinuation “Ooooh, this guy is all fancy ‘cuz he knows stuff other than hockey fights and Duck Dynasty.” I think the word you were looking for, my ham and egg friend, is ‘pretentious.’

It strikes me as a bit of a shrewd way to punish and put down someone for thinking a little differently. I’m not suggesting everyone has to travel the world, drink exotic Indonesian coffee beans at breakfast, or run to their nearest yoga shala for a moral cleansing. But the lack of curiosity in the flat denunciation of the difference is maddening – and is very commonplace among many folks who surround me. Instead of this: “You’re such a snob for not liking Tim Horton’s or Rascal Flatts” how about this: “why would you say Tim Horton’s is shitty coffee and David Bowie is such a genius”?

Turkish Coffee - Not Shite

Turkish coffee. Made with finely ground coffee simmered in a cezve. Not Shite.

My partner and I often tussle for control of the radio dial when we’re driving to or from work. She wants to listen to one of the fifteen Top 40 pop or country radio stations on the radio dial in my town, each of which plays the same twenty hit songs. These are the auto-tuned songs, the songs with beats ripped-off from samples of real artists, songs that transform the existential angst of life into campy pop-culture massacres; songs which, in a year, will compel everyone to stick an ice pick in their ears.

Sure, they’re filled with catchy beats that make you want to bop your head. They sound great in a night-club; they are ideal background music for the spectacle of lights and dancers who flank the pop star on their circus tour. But here’s the thing; they’re pop songs. They’re made to appeal to the most undiscerning base demographic of music listener in existence. They’re window-dressing in a whole genre of music that, on the whole, can be classified as “music for people who give zero fucks about music.”

Hey, that’s okay. Not everyone has to care about music. That’s not the point. The point is that, just because this sludge is rammed down millions of people’s throats, and because millions like it doesn’t mean it’s good. Millions of people thought National Socialism and Bolshevism were good too, right? The point is, those who listen to pop or whose tastes in everything else mirror exactly that of the masses cannot claim to have discerning taste. Their faculty of judgement, dulled by the fact of its mass-production, is as we ham’n eggers like to say, as “useful as tits on a bull.”

Eventually my partner shakes her head, miffed that I’m insinuating she has bad taste again. She is a good sport about it. I dig a little deeper into my foxhole with explanations and rationalizations to talk my way back into her heart. I provide logically defensible reasons why her taste in music is terrible, “Okay, so we’ll be listening to Justin Bieber and Hedley in two-hundred years like we’ve been listening to Mozart, right?” I say. “Heck, even forty years from now, do you think we’ll be listening to Selena Gomez and Rihanna like we’re still listening to the Rolling Stones and John Coltrane!” I implore.

Ultimately I retreat from the fight. I accept that I’m a music snob because I am making her feel self-conscious about her bad taste in music. I brace for a chilly evening and sex involving baby oil, Google, and more self-love than I can usually muster.

Okay so I guess there is no measure for anything. I guess anything we do to occupy the excess hours of our existence – playing video games, wanking to reality TV porn – is inherently intellectually enriching. I guess those who read nothing other than Twitter feeds are right to claim their opinions on world affairs, the economy, and climate change are as valid as those who spend their lives immersed in these fields. 

Really? Let’s get serious now. I mean it. The idea that those who swaddle themselves in the vacuous chimera of mass culture to the exclusion of all else could possess authoritative views in matters of taste, or anything else, is totally fucking absurd.

Hey, I’m no less capable of guilty pleasures than anyone else. I grew up with a single mother whose most reliable babysitter was the television. I ate that shit up. Escaping into re-runs of The Big Bang Theory is a great way to avoid the damage you’ve done to your career by not being able to keep your mouth shut when the Director is being a dick at the office. Soulless, mind-numbing junk is an easy salve for the pain of existence.

At the same time, I would never say someone is a “loser” or something similar if they said Big Bang Theory sucks. I wouldn’t defend my bad taste by turning their rightful opinion around on them. In the grand scheme, television is drivel. I know that because it’s not how I spend 100% of my free time. I am a Curious George, and tend to spend more of my free time chasing my tail in pursuit of my intellectual curiosities.

Curiosity; that faculty of mind distinguishing human beings from apes and pigs. It’s what compelled we humans to invent the tools of modernity that have made our lives infinitely easier than those of our ancestors: the combustion engine, electricity, airplanes, computers, and so forth. It’s a mental faculty that has been vital to our survival; one whose slow death our culture seems to celebrate. Every day I am exposed to mass media I see reams of Westerners pissing on the grave of the one virtue that secured our place at the top of the food chain: human wonder.

Cappuccino and biscotti

Cappuccino and biscotti. Absolutely, positively, not shite.

Throughout history, there are scores of examples where absolute rulers have sought to cast a pall of ignorance over the masses. How did they do this? They withheld education, books, and sought to control the information available to them. In lieu of power and participation in the fate of the nation, they gave them bread and circuses to pass the time. The despots of yore knew ignorance was more powerful than a loyal army to keep the masses subdued.

A mind engaged inevitably comes to be a mind that reflects; one that is prone to ask “why are most of us struggling and poor while that small batch of billionaires are getting richer every year?” Minds accustomed to that kind of reflection are not as easily swayed by the answer “don’t worry struggling middle-class peon, the wealthier we billionaires are, the better off you will be. Eventually. Just wait a little longer.” Only people whose wits have been softened by inactivity could believe such royal horseshit.

This is what gets my back up about the “snob” comment, especially when it’s wielded against anyone or anything that reeks of intellectual discernment. It is part of the same anti-intellectual strain of thinking that has darkened our culture for decades; since the senile guy who once starred in Bedtime for Bonzo became the most powerful puppet in the Western world. It’s a catch-all to disdain anything that might pass for “high-minded.” It is a celebration of the trailer-park simpleton as cultural ideal; a belief that Homer Simpson is the benchmark for modern civilization.

Such thinking has made it possible for millions of people to believe Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate as president of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential nation on the planet. His supporters don’t seem capable of seeing through his “self-made” narrative or extrapolating from his misogynist, Muslim-banning, chest-thumping, race-baiting, simple question-avoiding bluster as to what kind of leader he would be. The lack of discernment in matters of taste seems to have overtaken their capacity to discern what is or isn’t politically in their own interests as well.

Closer to home, many of my fellow ham’n eggers swallow the turd in a cup about how taxes, government, and immigrants are bad just because the guy on television who looks white, male, and frightened of change, just like them, said so. All the while unrestrained corporate wealth, guns (at least in the hands of white Christians and police), and more millionaire hockey players are accepted as good simply because they too are so much more familiar than the other thing. For a long time, folks have been given cups and cups of this shit coffee. The longer everyone’s been drinking it, the more pressure each person feels to set aside their mental faculties and believe it grand simply because everyone seems to love it.

Angry Mob Politics - Shite

The politics of hate, blame, fear, and scapegoating propagated by Ayn Rand circle-jerking politicians. Shite.

Next time you hear someone say “that cuppa Tim’s sucks” try to restrain your instinct to defend the turd. Don’t automatically succumb to your impulse to silence the differing view by uttering slurs like “snob” or “bleeding heart liberal.” Don’t believe the hype; it will dull your capacity to adjudge the shit coffee and fascist demagogues as terrible for your soul. Instead, hear those who were able to taste the popular brand of nonsense a little more critically; who were driven by their curiosity about the possibility of something different and better; who have discovered that, sometimes, what we have been led to believe as virtuous and true can be utterly false and reprehensible.

In the end, I’d rather be a snob than a fool. Enjoy your shit coffee like the rest of the mob if you really want to. I can bet the billionaires are ecstatic you continue to buy it; that your addiction to the belief in its goodness will fill their pockets with your money.

Bu-Bye Harper, From a Beleaguered Civil Servant

(Written in November 2015)

Lord Harper, er Vader, and PMO minions

Ousted PM Harper and a couple of big-headed, small-minded minions from the PMO trailing behind.

Canadians from all corners of this vast country voted last fall to oust Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and gave the Liberal Party of Canada and Justin Trudeau a clear mandate to govern. The election results included a large swath of votes that went to the New Democratic Party and Green parties, and clearly signaled a widespread desire for government to play an active role in bettering the lives of Canadians. For many years we watched Harper and his clowns publicly engage in projectile vomiting toward the bureaucracy; we saw him toss a steady-stream of scapegoats under the bus to titillate the spectators of their three-ring circus who came with a blood-lust.

There isn’t much room for interpretation of those fall election results. It is a clear repudiation of the angry, divisive style and tone of the former Prime Minister. It was a rejection of his empty platform – if banning burqas and rallies with Rob Ford are rightly called parts of a ‘platform.’ Canadians demanded a plan that was more specific than “tax cuts” which, in Harper’s final term of office, seemed to fuel the belief he had a free hand to do anything he pleased so long as he cut a per cent off the GST – proroguing parliament three times, introducing bills amending twenty-six pieces of legislation without study by committee, passing unconstitutional laws, firing scientists from the bureaucracy for discussing science, and so on, and so on. Maybe Canadians want to pay less tax, but they also want a government to outline its agenda and be transparent in its actions; they want to be given something by which an informed decision about whether to give them a mandate can be made.

I say that not as a partisan, but as a civil servant who, like the vast majority of my public-sector peers, have made a career implementing the laws, plans, and priorities of government, hopefully for the betterment of the lives of Canadians. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to hear a public servant suggest that, under the tutelage of the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the last several years were totally demoralizing. It wasn’t just the cuts to thousands of colleagues, it was vitriolic way by which the public service as a whole was slandered to justify the deed; a mode of attack sustained well after the slashing had been done. It revealed the Harper Conservatives not as good governors or earnest policy-makers but as petty, vindictive human beings.

PM Trudeau - aka The Count of Monte Cristo

The man who saved the citizens of Canada from the evil reign of Lord Vader, the Count of Monte Cristo, er, I mean Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau

The relationship between the elected government of the day and the Canadian public service is grounded in the Westminster system of government inherited from our great- great- grandparents in the United Kingdom. In this model, there is a clear separation from the Prime Minister and Cabinet on one side, and the non-partisan government Ministries that administer the laws, regulations, policies, and plans attached to each of the portfolios of the Cabinet on the other.

The Cabinet Minister with portfolio is politically accountable for the activities of his Ministry. However, the person responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Ministry is the Deputy Minister. The relationship is much like that of a Chief Executive Officer and a Chief Operating Officer in a large, publicly-traded company. The former is accountable to outside stakeholders, the latter is responsible to run the place and keep the CEO informed.

Under this arrangement, Cabinet ministers are not expected to be expert in their portfolios. As avatars of the will of the people they are there to provide clear mandates to the Deputy Ministers (DM) who must implement the plans of government. As elected officials, it is the Minister’s job to engage stakeholder citizens to canvass their issues and incorporate them into directives their DMs must achieve in operating the department. It is also the role of the elected Minister to remain abreast of the progress of his Ministry in effecting the agenda, and to communicate progress to the stakeholders.

The role of the Deputy Minister and the bureaucracy is to take what can be very broad, vague instructions of their Minister and, as experts in the area, find effective ways to implement these plans with the resources provided to do so. Sometimes that means recommending new laws or policy to ensure that plans are undertaken in a fair and procedurally transparent fashion. Determining the best way to execute an idea or plan is a process, but relies on the expertise and resources of the public service to carry those plans through effectively.

On paper, it seems so simple. Except, imagine how hard it must be for a newly-elected Minister who was a pig farmer by vocation to suddenly find himself politically responsible for the day-to-day operations of a department like Foreign Affairs. The urge to interfere and micromanage to allay anxieties about being politically accountable for something way beyond your grasp is understandably strong. The new Minister doesn’t know his DM, the Ministry, or the Public Service from a hole in the side of his barn.

This is why the bonds of trust and respect between the elected government of the day and the Public Service is essential right at the outset. For the Prime Minister and Cabinet, this is where Deputy Ministers (and the Privy Council Office) make their bread. They are accustomed to working with people who do not know their portfolios in depth and they have dozens, hundreds, or thousands of public servants in their Ministries to do the necessary work in rolling out plans, monitoring progress, and reporting on accountabilities.

There is a reason Canada is a relatively centrist, middling country whose progress tends to be slow but steady. The day-to-day functioning of government Ministries is mandated by the laws of Parliament and as such cannot be subjected to political whimsy or interference. If that happens, then laws become meaningless paeans to corruption. At the same time, ideas that express the desires of the people, even if whimsical for their lack of specificity, cannot be flatly dismissed by stolid bureaucracies. That is why there needs to be mutual respect, discussion, and trust between the sides. They may start at opposite ends of how ideas translate into programs and policy and must, from there, arrive at a measure of what can feasibly be accomplished.

This is why the public service must not be partisan. It is expected to give the best advice possible no matter who is in power. Certainly, public servants have political views – they are citizens – however they take their cues from the will of democracy as exemplified in the elected government and focus their efforts on gaining expertise in the machinery of government. This allows Deputy Ministers to provide the most candid advice without taint of political machinations.

It is clear, the former government of Prime Minister Harper did very little to respect the Westminster model of government – either on the political side where he prorogued Parliament, introduced omnibus bills and the like – or in respect of the bureaucracy, which he politicized to a degree unprecedented in recent Canadian history. He took the premise of prioritizing government austerity and transformed it into a campaign to discredit and impugn the integrity of the public service in the eyes of the Canadian public. In dismissing the competence of the public service outright and attempting to reach far into the day-to-day functions of the Ministries he also undermined the very essence of a functioning government which relies on a partnership of elected ministers and a non-partisan bureaucracy.

For the most part, I dismissed Harper’s electioneering as the necessary bluster of politics. It was meant to give the public something of putative substance to spice up the most unimaginative political platform for a nation imaginable: “tax relief.” In my mind, that was a clever evasion; a bit of mental laziness for failing to outline one’s policy choices. It still shocks me that Canadians or any citizen of a democracy falls for such nonsense, but such is the tenor of the times. If Canadians wanted to believe that public servants are demons, fair enough, but no rational group of elected officials given a mandate to actually govern could possibly have believed that nonsense, I reasoned. How truly wrong I was.

In the beginning, Harper slashed and razed publicly funded programs like the Court Challenges Program on strident, ideological grounds and justified it by saying the electorate had given him carte blanche to cut as he saw fit. Toward the end of PM Harper’s reign, the PMO went rogue all over the public service, truly believing their own fabulist tales about how bureaucrats were devoid of competence or irrelevant to running a government. The Globe and Mail story about how the PMO requested refugee files of fleeing Syrian migrants to do their own audit of the immigration department’s file management was the most insidious reflection of this. What expertise lay in the PMO that would have outflanked that of seasoned bureaucrats whose careers had been spent assessing immigration and refugee applications? What kind of audit could a non-experienced political staffer have done that would have been qualitatively better than, say, one done by a senior executive within the immigration department?

I have to confess in the end, I took much of this very personally as a public servant because of the systematic attacks we were all subjected to for so many years. To this day, the mere utterance of the name Tony Clement makes me want to drive my fist into the nearest wall imagining his smug, self-satisfied, corrupt face as a target. But then I was heartened to have such strange bedfellows in my career woes: Harper’s most prominent Cabinet ministers began to drop off like flies before the last election. Backbench MPs were kicked out of caucus, senior Cabinet members were muzzled, party discipline turned grown adults into cheerleaders for Harper’s cynical agenda. I barely knew the names of a vast majority of Conservative MPs or Cabinet ministers until the press releases announced their departures. ‘Ah, so that’s who the so-and-so Minister was. Good to know,’ I found myself saying repeatedly.

Tony Clement his PMO minion and bureaucrat

Tony (Jabba the Hutt) Clement, his little minion/lackey, and a hapless bureaucrat enslaved for calling in sick one too many times for Jabba’s liking.

It became clear, the former PM believed he needed neither a public service nor an effective Cabinet and party caucus to govern this country. In retrospect, it is harrowing to think that the Conservative Party was so totally emasculated that it could do nothing to protest such iron-fisted rule, or rein in unilateral decisions that everyone in caucus must have known would be wildly unpopular with the electorate. It makes me shudder for Canadian democracy to think how close we were to having elected a dictator.

In any case, from the perspective of a public servant, Harper’s reign is so tragically peculiar. It is unbecoming of a man of Stephen Harper’s obvious intelligence and genuine desire to serve the public interest to have harboured such clear delusions about what could be achieved all on his own; to think he didn’t need a civil service to implement his plans. Not only is it idiotic but it is petty to the extreme. I think there are lessons in this for any party leader. His legacy is the cautionary tale of what happens when over-wrought ego and hubris combine not only to rob a party of its moral tether but to deprive a nation of a well-functioning government.

I make these points not in the interests of supporting a particular party, so much as to offer a lone voice from the public service to counter the repeated sermons demonizing civil servants Canadians heard from the bully pulpit of the previous government. I am also speaking out as just one of the thousands of public servants who get up every day and try their hardest to do their jobs to the best of their ability with the tools – and the orders – given them. Imagine going to work at your company and everyday seeing your boss on television or in the papers disparaging you, suggesting you’re over paid, under-worked, incompetent, undeserving, entitled, expendable, and mostly unnecessary. And then imagine that boss coming to you every day with a new plan, priority, or mandate and castigating you publicly for being unable to steer a teetering ship in seventeen different directions. Imagine.

In the end, Canadians were able to see through the vitriol and to the character and integrity of a man so easily capable of lobbing such relentless invective at the very people he needs to help him govern. I am glad collective wisdom prevailed. Not only has it maintained my faith in my fellow citizens, but so too has it restored my faith in democracy and re-invigorated my desire to serve the public.

Despite the number of Canadians who voted against the message of negativity in our Canadian election, there is still a sizeable element of the Canadian public who still lack faith in the integrity of the public service, who seem to doubt on a fundamental level the utility in spending a dime on public services. The former PM and a few of his ministers focused much of their effort on painting a picture of federal public servants as abusers of certain entitlements such as sick pay. They felt so strongly about the issue they fed the Canadian public misinformation about the cost and nature of sick leave in the public service. They passed legislation to impose a new sick-leave regime which violates the collective bargaining rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I would ask, what are citizens supposed to take away about their rights as employees across all sectors if its own federal public servants and their employer, the Government of Canada, are flouting the constitutional foundations of Canada’s labour laws?

Trudeau-Brazeau

Then-MP Trudeau rightly pointing out the douchey speedo worn by the Conservative Senator. The skinny guy won the boxing match, the speedo can never be un-seen, regrettably.

At some point this type of dialogue simply marks those who utter it as stupid, ignorant assholes. I don’t know why, but it is conservative ideologues in Canada and the US that seem to monopolize these ranks. To be blunt, this isn’t conservatism at all; it is libertarianism, the right side of a continuum that ends in anarchism on the left. David Hume, Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott would recognize nothing in the movements passing themselves off as conservatism these days. The political discourse their proponents tout resembles a bowel movement, rather than a legitimate body of political thought.

In any case, many so-called conservatives tout specific policy priorities that only governments can implement, which makes their avowed desire to see the death of government through tax starvation really peculiar. For example, conservatives typically view military intervention as the preferred stand-in for real diplomacy in foreign relations. Person for person, the military is the most expensive of government operations a nation undertakes – each soldier comes with a huge price-tag in training and equipment that consumes tax revenue far more rapidly than other programs. To the degree right-wing ideology informs an over-reliance on military solutions, it posits a far more profligate use of the public purse than any number of items on a typical socialist agenda.

After the 2008 housing and financial sector crash, what would the US economy look like today if there were no government to intervene? That bailout was tax money, in case anyone was wondering. It’s interesting, when the government expenditures benefit corporate interests the reliance on such schemes upon buckets of tax revenue, or their deprivation of the public purse with preferential tax policies, which is effectively a tax subsidy, are completely downplayed. Make no mistake, these rely upon a government that collects taxes; in some cases lots of taxes.

Suffice it to say there will never be a state of affairs where a government collects little or no taxes and is then able to respond to the needs of its citizens with effective policies; yes, even if “conservatives” are elected. So, this line of rhetoric about zero taxes and the perfunctory role of government should no longer gain any traction politically. Taken to the extreme it benefits only those who would see our democratic nations turned into Corporations which are, by virtue of their purely economic nature, primarily fascist organizations. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Pinochet are what happens when oligarch industrialists, teeming with ennui at the mere monopolization of a nation’s wealth, aspire to monopolize the political power as well; their zeal for propagating  disenfranchisement as they fatten their wallets knows no bounds.

Given that reality, Canadians are best served by parties offering something other than business priorities or tax policy; who do not tout cynical notions that undermine democracy and care little for social goods like education or health care. Citizens are best served by plugging their ears to demagogues who spew old albatrosses about “evil government” and “lazy public servants” as institutions that aren’t worth sustaining with tax revenue. It’s a great song and dance, but if taxes are cut the services and the government go with them. I shouldn’t have to spell that out, but there are throngs of people who support perpetual tax cuts without thinking about what will step in to deliver public goods – Corporations. It is a clever, elegant delusion which, if it continues to be believed, will destroy the foundation that makes Canada a global economic and political leader – an educated, healthy, and well-governed society.

I take the 2015 federal election as a clear sign Canadians want to get back to reality. We can’t deny the nation-building role of government – hospitals, schools, universities – these were planned, built, and continue to be operated by government. Those who say they don’t want to pay taxes are essentially saying they are in favour of letting the schools, hospitals, police detachments, and universities crumble. Any party that pretends to offer “savings” by gutting the ability of a government to deliver on its mandate, and slanders their key partners in governing – the public service – should be chased off the political stage as the disingenuous frauds and hucksters they are. They are selling snake oil to gain power.

I say that as a citizen foremost, and as a public servant eager for a government who proceeds with a vision and a plan to make Canadian lives better. I am glad last fall most Canadians put their votes toward parties that decided to run on actual policy issues. In order for the Westminster model to work as intended, it needs elected officials with a clear mandate who are eager to work with their mandarins to implement their priorities. The Westminster model needs elected officials who believe the reason they stood for office is to actually govern the nation.

Trudeau and Pandas

Let’s get some pandas, some bamboo, some civil servants and do this governing thing gangsta-style.

To Prime Minister Trudeau I say my colleagues and I are here with knowledge, experience, and eagerness to work as partners with the government of the day to implement its plans. I say the same to the next Prime Minister, be it yourself or another. We are here to serve our fellow citizens because that is what we do – we work for Canadians. True enough, we are less able to massage hollow partisan agendas into workable laws and real policy because, in their contempt for reality, they don’t translate into feasible, measurable results. We have dedicated our careers to advising elected officials in how to turn lofty political ideas into practical, executable plans. Now that the politicking is over, let’s rise above the platitudes to rouse a political base, dispense with scape-goating the public sector to feed the knuckle-draggers, and collaborate to effect real, meaningful changes to better the lives of Canadians. That is why we both sought to be where we are, after all.

 

Ho! Ho! Hold Your “Holiday Cups”!

Fuck It Santa Claus

This shit ain’t what it used to be Frosty!

It’s that time of year again. Christmas. I’ve never been keen on the consumerist, golden-calf worship that typifies much of the festivities. At an early age the shallowness and affected spirituality of the season rubbed me the wrong way, and compelled me to discount Christianity as a total sham. Since I was in my teens, the tidal wave of syrupy Christmas carols and the displacement of Jesus as a cultural icon by the likes of Santa Claus and his trademark slogan “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” struck me as cruel, secular perversions of something supposedly Divine.

Despite how I feel about the spectacle, I’ve taken it all in stride, save for one of the more recent hallmarks in the modern Christmas tradition: angry white people ranting about being unable to see, hear, and say “Merry Christmas” wherever they go. They never explicitly identify the object of their derision, but “political correctness” is offered as the culprit. It’s the usual canard for reactionaries who resent forces of moderation encouraging WASPs to be less intolerant, less disparaging than is our knee-jerk custom.

In this instance, the ire is roused by throngs of non-Christian visible minorities whose presence has forced them to keep the volume on their all-night Christmas party at a tolerable level so their beleaguered neighbors of other creeds can get some shut-eye. For the next two spirit-crushing months, not only will I have six hundred different versions of the seven most popular Christmas carols stabbed into my ears wherever I go, but I will also experience a daily barrage of witless protests by nearly every WASP over fifty-five decrying the total ruin of Christmas whenever they see the words “Happy Holidays.”

To mourn the degradation of Christmas, my social media feeds will be littered with videos by irate, aging white guys ranting about how, in the good old days before non-European immigration, folks could rifle off “Merry Christmas” without worrying it would hit the ears of a Hindu and make them feel like a heel. Already, I’ve seen renowned Christian scholar Donald Trump blasting Starbucks for their “Holiday Cups.” It’s only November and my highly-reactive, bleeding-heart-liberal spleen has suffered countless beatings from this nonsense.

Me not caring about what Starbucks puts on cupsIn addition to sermons from Monsignor Trump, I will see loads of internet memes with pictures of Christmas icons like Bing Crosby juxtaposed with lame, racially-tinged quotes wistful at the sad fact Christmas will never be as white as it once was. In the stores and malls I will hear indignant, Baby Boomer whites huffing under their breath when they hear a store cashier say “Season’s Greetings” to the brown customer they’ve just served. There will be much indignant pondering as to why there is no Christmas tree in the lobby at work.

I understand how odd it must feel for those who, for much of their lives, didn’t have to concern themselves with these issues. I admit, it does require a mental shift to accept the new reality of all these non-Christians we knew were “out there” before, but who are now in our stores and workplaces today, forcing us to tone down our carnal urge to break out into spontaneous choruses of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Change, especially when it concerns something cherished, like the birth of your religion’s namesake, can be difficult to fathom.

But that’s not really what we are talking about with this grievance is it? We are talking about guarding the sanctity, not of the words of Christ our Lord, but the slogan of Santa Claus, the pagan idol, second-stringer who’s been quarterbacking the Christmas season in place of Jesus for the last fifty years.

Using “Merry Christmas” sparingly in favour of more neutral language reflects an awareness and sensitivity to the existence of so many people among us raised in different traditions. It is enough that in every facet of their lives outside their home, non-Christians are forced to participate to a degree in a tradition they do not share. They experience Christmas at the store, at work, at the restaurant – virtually everywhere. Why not spare them the experience of shoving our “Merry Christmas” cream pie in their face? Christians should easily concede the slogan has no real connection with genuine Christianity – other than the word Christ. Its cultural significance was stamped in our minds not by its association with Jesus in the Gospels, but by its identification with Santa Claus.

Given this reality, the decline of this slogan in favour of more neutral language is a small, conciliatory gesture of respect to those non-Christians among us. It is a way to acknowledge the existence of other faiths by moderating our conduct, just a tad. Such a minor adjustment does nothing to degrade the Christian faith. That degradation was well underway as Santa Claus, his reindeer, and elves at the North Pole became the true cultural icons at Christmas time. The putrefaction intensified, ironically, as Santa’s “Merry Christmas” slogan became more synonymous with Christmas than anything authentically Christian.

Certainly, those disconsolate about the fact of millions from different cultures and creeds living among us have had plenty of time to adjust to the realities of global migration that stirs their fears. The Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, and others in our communities weren’t dropped off by the millions in an airlift yesterday afternoon. They’ve been coming in waves for decades and have set down roots. It is their home too. Dare I say, maybe it is also time to finally tip our hats to those of the Jewish faith who have gracefully endured our unbridled winter paganism for generations. I think they are due for a break. If anything, those fearful of losing Santa Claus could benefit from the Jewish example about how to sustain true faith and spirituality without having to resort to shallowness and bombast.

How the f*ck am I supposed to know what season it is if they don't plaster

How the heck am I supposed to know what season it is if they don’t plaster “Merry Christmas” all over my coffee cup? Starbucks. Bunch of Jesus-haters.
(PHOTO CREDIT – Starbucks)

I say this with the hope that those publicly airing their grievances about this issue will understand how foolish and, sadly, racist they appear. I do not really think legions of grown adults genuinely believe that, since we began letting in hordes of un-Christian immigrants, everything that held our national spirits together – Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – has gone to pieces. It is something else about the issue that stirs them.

Whether they realize it or not, their anger betrays a variant of racially-motivated nostalgia that is unhealthy in a pluralistic, democratic society. Those who do not keep this emotion in check ignore the destruction the very same sentiments caused in the early 20th century. Every time there is a terrorist attack linked to Islamic extremists, the same people angered about the “Merry Christmas” issue are posting videos or commentaries on my social media feeds deriding Islam, open immigration policies, and everything else that is foreign in the eyes of a WASP. It is disappointing to behold people I otherwise deeply respect sharing media that are profoundly ignorant and intolerant. I know they are good people who are obviously unable to contain their fears about a world that seems in chaos. They need now, more than ever, to work harder to keep perspective; to maintain the goodness I know is in their hearts. I confess, I’d rather not have to engage in such moral reconciliations about friends at Christmas time.

It needs to be said that immigrants didn’t choose our countries to get in on the Christmas festivities. Many of those living among us with different faiths had no choice but to leave their homelands in search of safety and economic security. The newcomers came, not to crowd-out the Christian faith, or spread their own, but so they and their families could survive.

Given the underlying spirit of the season, this reality should encourage us to embrace those whose presence signifies something hopeful and new; something unique and different than existed before. We should each do our part in fostering harmony between the cultures in our community and helping each other to succeed. Our presence here shares a common narrative with those who’ve more recently arrived; that of leaving hardships behind to forge a better life for generations to come. For some of us, our ancestors got here earlier, and look at our good fortune.

It is this universal human story, when juxtaposed against the stridency and the triviality that belies this seasonal protest, which drives me mad. Good people should not be so pissed off at fellow humans whose presence is predicated by the realities of hardship we all share. Those who raise the demise of “Merry Christmas” as a cultural lightning rod are losing their minds to something absolutely inane, and it makes them unable to contain a latent chauvinism that taints their otherwise good-nature. To publicly air such sentiments is contemptuous of the generosity of spirit and boundless love for all creatures Jesus extols, so you should stop. It’s bloody Christmas, after all.

The decline of genuine Christian affinity that is the sub-text of this hysteria long pre-dates the influx of people living among us of other faiths. Christianity won’t be watered-down any more than it already has by a less profligate use of secular slogans on our coffee cups or in our workplaces. Christianity, at least in North America, has long been a gaunt spiritual force in our societies; the nutriments to sustain an authentic faith leeched into the same gutter at the locus of our much stronger affinity to unbounded greed and capitalism.

Those yelling at the top of their lungs imploring the brown masses of other faiths to embrace Santa Claus and exhort “Merry Christmas” with the rest of us pagans, might instead be advised to heed the teachings of Jesus. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how much more rewarding it is to persuade with exemplary actions rather than angry words?

I will let Jesus himself have the final word about the season. The wisdom below is taken from the Bible, which I doubt most have ever read; too exhausted as they are from shopping, drinking, binge-eating, and singing Christmas carols. I know, by din of the racially-motivated invective despoiling the season, many are not heeding its words. The excerpts are from the Gospel of Mark, taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which appears in Chapters five through seven.

Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays to all!

I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’