Thursday, May 8, 2014

So you're an activist...

So you say you’re an activist.

What does that mean? Just how “active” do you have to be to qualify? Is there an exam, a test, a certificate of some kind? Do you only become an activist when the Vancouver police drag you off, eyes streaming with pepper-flavoured tears, and it’s reported as “Local activist arrested”? Or can you be an activist without sacrificing your home, family, welfare, and well-being to your cause?

These questions occur to me because whatever I do, it isn’t enough for some people. If I’m ignorant of some strife in the world, I’m told “Don’t you care?” If I care, people say “How can you stay silent?” If I complain about something, I’m asked “Do you vote?” If I vote, I’m challenged “Do you donate?” If I donate, then it’s “Well, do you volunteer, or do you just throw money at the problem?”

You can see where this pattern leads. By the end I do nothing but deliver meals-on-wheels, serve at soup kitchens, teach underprivileged kids to play hockey, and picket Stephen Harper’s house. Only the last activity sounds in any way enjoyable or fulfilling, but I suspect it doesn’t pay very well. When I sleep, I chain myself to a 300-year old redwood so the clear-cutters can’t get it. I see my kids and friends when they come to visit me in jail or the hospital.

Good times.

I know I’m engaging in the logical failing of reductio ad absurdim, but the essence of my point is valid. How much is enough?

There’s no possible chance I personally am doing enough. I freely admit it. I’m a lazy man—ask anyone—and the idea, for instance, of arming myself with pamphlets and going door-to-door at election season begging for votes turns “my bowels to water,” to use a mainstay of fantasy literature. My own lack of dedication, however, doesn’t stop me from being offended when other people call into question good intentions.

A couple examples:

**When Ender’s Game hit the theatres, there was a boycott from liberals. Card is a diehard enemy of gay rights, and many chose to avoid this latest project of his in an attempt to show him that inhumane beliefs have consequences. Then some of the diehard ACTIVISTS reared up and sneered at the people involved in the boycott. Your efforts are meaningless, give us money, give us time, what you’re doing won’t have any effect.

**An argument about Canadian politics on Facebook (why do we do something so pointless as argue on Facebook? But that’s a discussion for another day… maybe on Facebook): people were throwing their opinions around, and then someone said “Saying things doesn’t do anything. Do you give money to the political party you support? Quit being a slacktivist.”

How is that valuable? To mock and show contempt for someone THAT AGREES WITH YOU, simply because they haven’t given as much of their lives to defend that shared agreement? Sure, the ridiculing of your less-fervent supporters as a tactic to bolster their spirit was first attributed to Gandhi, when he famously said, “Really? You’re gonna eat that? You know the British are still here, right? And you’re gonna have a meal. Wow. Just… wow. And you call yourself a passive resister. You look pretty active to me, pal.”

Awareness of an issue has to be the first step. You spread your message. When you find someone who has the same mindset on the same issue, that is AN ALLY, not an enemy. You try and encourage your allies to do more, yes, but you don’t accomplish that end by belittling their efforts. Nurture them. Show them a path to follow. Give them some productive options in productive ways.

But don’t shut them down when they’re just learning. No one would make it out of kindergarten if that’s how we taught children.

“You think finger painting is going to accomplish anything in this world? Well, it ain’t! So if you can’t solve quadratic equations or name the prime minister of Uruguay, GET OUT OF MY CLASS!! And get your finger out of your nose.”

You don’t make future college graduates that way, and you sure won’t win my support, either.

But so what, right? My support isn’t enough to satisfy you, anyway.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Georgia and guns

So I almost got into a Facebook argument today. Not even an “argument,” not the way the Internet defines such things, where a stranger and I engage in deliberately inflammatory and personally insulting remarks until someone drops the H-bomb (Hitler, that is, not hydrogen). This was going to be a discussion with a friend who’s opinion does not match my own—no big deal. But, it was going to be a long post, then he’d post back, and then I’d post, and instead I’m just going to write down everything I was going to say at the start.

Gun control.

Georgia joined the numerous American states where it is legal for guns to be carried in schools, bars, airports, and places of worship. If you’re a big supporter of the NRA or the Second Amendment, this is great news. If you’re a Canadian liberal, like myself, it’s crappy. Not only from a generally humanist standpoint, in which any killing is generally frowned upon, but from a political one as well. Our current prime minister, the Harper 2000, very much likes to follow in the footsteps of the American right-wing policy-makers, so I’m worried he’ll take this latest cue to drive his majority government toward looser gun control. I like guns being restricted. I like walking into a mall and seeing nothing nastier than pepper-spray on the belts of security guards. It’s reassuring. When I see a cop, I’m very conscious of his gun: if he’s having a bad day—like his wife just left him for a guy that looked just like me—he could just draw his gun and put a pill in me. He’d lose his job, probably go to jail, but that’s of little benefit to me, as I’m dead. Boom.

Stories of LA drivers shooting at each other were a mainstay of my childhood, and that doesn’t happen if no one has guns. Someone cuts you off, they get the horn and the finger… NOT a clip full of 9mm shells. Punishment should fit the crime, and pissing me off is NOT a sin worth murdering for. (If I’m having a bad day, I may argue otherwise.)

My argument against proliferation of weaponry is NOT based on the Second Amendment. I ignore it. Not that a constitution shouldn’t be protected or followed, but a rule written a couple centuries ago should not govern current behaviour. It makes no sense. America has no slaves (outside of Wal-Mart, I mean). Women can vote. Things change, often for the better, at least when you look at the long-term. So why not weaken the Second Amendment? Why should it be sacrosanct? Sure, everyone can have a firearm, the absolute best thing available, as many as they want, as much ammunition as they can find, as long as the weapon matches the technology of 1776, the era in which the Second Amendment was crafted. All the muskets you want, and all the black powder you can carry. Go nuts.

No, my argument against guns is about safety. Sure, we have a nanny-state and a societal trend towards over-protectiveness, but saying “No machine guns” isn’t the same as booster seats and removing all the fun playground equipment. The bottom line is this: the more people who have ready access to devices of easy murder, the more likely it is people will be murdered.

It was proposed to me that gun possession might serve as a deterrent to crime. Sure, that makes sense. Who is going to be stupid enough to snatch a purse knowing six witnesses will draw iron and gun them down in a cross-fire hail of bullets? Of course criminals are known for their rational, logical, reasonable choices. That’s why they all commit crimes—just a second income—tax-free no less!—to support their lucrative professional careers. Give me a break. It’s a proven fact that criminals have statistically low impulse control. Nevertheless, I’m sure threat of punishment will be enough to stop them.

Oh, wait. Most of the really crazy places in America have capital punishment. Criminals can already face death down there, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping them, to judge by the long lists of death row inmates. Fear of punishment only stops people that already fear authority (like me—afraid of cops, remember?).

You might—just might—get a reduction in raw crime statistics, like “instead of 300 arrests, police made only 50 this month.” Some petty criminals might get scared away from trying anything. Of course, a reduction in arrests might also be paired with a sharp increase in body disposal. “After snatching Miss Jansen’s purse, her assailant was shot seventy-three times by eight Good Samaritans.” And just how many innocent bystanders were tagged in the process? Bullets go THROUGH things, including people, and that’s assuming every shot even hits the intended target in the first place.

There’s no training required to tote a gun in Crazyland, USA. Will the helpful feller next to you remember to check his sight lines before pulling the trigger on your mugger? Will he make sure they are no kids or seniors or just random pedestrians around? When we get filled with adrenaline through the “fight or flight” instinct, all our reactions get screwed up. People can panic. People WILL panic.

That doesn’t even include the guns-in-bars thing. Seriously? SERIOUSLY!?! I had a job once where I was able to view the security feeds for a local bar. In two years on the job, I can’t recall a single Friday or Saturday night that didn’t have at least one fight break out. The bouncers were on the brawlers pretty quick, but if you throw guns into the mix, what then? Are the bouncers gunning down the brawlers? Are the brawlers shooting back? Are they shooting at each other? Bars are crowded places. Even a single shooter in that environment is going to do some nasty damage.

Then there are schools. I understand the fear that a school shooting will happen again (as it inevitably will, alas). Giving teachers firearms is NOT the best solution. Increasing passive security (metal detectors, locked doors, limited entry points under constant observation, etc) will go a lot further to actually protecting kids than hiring Wyatt Earp as your principal. Do we want, under ANY circumstances, an armed gunfight in the halls where our kids are being taught?

To a point, I agree with the NRA maxim of “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But why does that “good guy” have to be EVERYONE!! Why not just limit the power of firearms to the professionals, who are trained and taught to deal with these sorts of ugly situations? Let them handle it. Please.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Trains and Riches

We’ve all heard of that old morality tale about the runaway train. It’s bearing down the tracks toward some helpless people, but you’re standing by the switch that can divert the train to another track. Flip the switch, save the people. Don’t flip the switch, the train grinds those poor imaginary people to death.

There is a certain type of person who would just stand there and watch the coming train wreck. “It’s not my fault those innocents will die. The train’s doing the killing; it’s nothing to do with me.” Our legal system even bears this concept out. This reprehensible person couldn’t be charged with murder. They didn’t technically DO anything to kill anyone, even though most of us wouldn’t be in a really big hurry to invite this fictional knob over for supper.

That’s the image that sprang to my mind when I heard Kevin O’Leary spouting off about the free market economy. Wages and prices are determined by the market, he says, mimicking the mating call of all Green-Striped Capitalists everywhere. “I don’t decide; the Market decides.” (I presume the Market is treated as a proper noun, as is the way with any important object of worship.)

This sort of moral cowardice makes me to mad. Maybe it’s just because I recently read the collection of rants by Rick Mercer and so my fur’s all up, ready to get furious. For those who don’t know him, Kevin O’Leary is a diehard capitalist, a frequent feature of CBC programming whenever they need to air someone who is morally repugnant and wholly without pity for anyone without a seven figure back account. Here’s what he looks like:

Smug, isn’t he? He has, to paraphrase the late, great Douglas Adams, a face that inspires you to punch it. Regardless, however, he made the news a little more frequently the last week. After the recent Oxfam report found that half the world’s population has wealth equivalent to the richest 85 people, Kevin publicly called this wonderful. “It’s a great thing,” he proclaimed.

Why is it a great thing? Well, because nothing inspires the poor and downtrodden more than realizing just how much ground they have to cover to be one of the elite. The wealth gap, according to O’Leary, is a stupendously effective motivator. That’s really all poor people need, you know: a little motivation.

Of course, if a terrifying wealth gap were REALLY any sort of motivator, you’d think the poor would be doing better, wouldn’t you? It isn’t as though the gap between have and have not is a new thing. Instead of shrinking, it’s getting worse. It’s not a gap; it’s a yawning, terrifying chasm. It makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk. Just mull it over again.

Eighty-five people own as much as three-point-five BILLION. That is not right. I don’t know how to fix it: I haven’t a clue, not the foggiest, utterly without direction on this matter. Claiming it’s a GOOD thing, though… yeah, pretty sure that’s not the case.

Nor did any little demigod called “The Market” decide to inflict destitution on the masses. Hosts of petty tyrants, all with the Kevin O’Leary mindset, did this. They started the train rolling, and they refuse to flip the switch.

Oh, and if they could, they’d sell tickets to the inevitable wreck, too.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Disney Part II

So just where do we stay when we go to Disney?

This time we roomed at Kidnai Village in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Resort. I really love this place, in spite of the flaws I found this trip. They have something called “savannah view” rooms. These have spacious balconies that allow you to watch, at any point in the day, a variety of African animals wandering the grounds. You wake up, you go outside into the morning warmth of Florida, and you take your breakfast while watching real live giraffes and wildebeests graze. (I assume they’re live. If they aren’t, they’re the best animatronics in the business.) It’s great. This is how I prefer my wildlife; easily viewable from the comfort of civilization.

The resort itself is done up in dark wood colours and decorated the way you’d decorate your house if you wanted to embrace your African heritage, but aren’t actually African at all. White person’s African, you could call it, though I doubt you’ll see that label appear any time soon in House & Home. When the sun was up, it looked really good. When it was night, though, the whole place looked gloomy and dim. Their lighting fixtures just weren’t up to the challenge in the dark hours.

I will say Kidani Village could do with one of those moving walkways you get at the airport. Our room was at the far, far, FAAAAR end of one of the two wings. I’m not used to hotels sprawling over acres of land, so the distance came as a surprise. Let me tell you, after eight hours walking through Disney parks with kids, the last thing I wanted to do was trudge the half kilometre from the lobby to my couch. (You think I’m kidding? I paced it out. Half a klick, people. And yes, I know that’s not a lot of distance in and of itself, but you try walking five football fields every time you want to “nip down” to the gift shop and grab a snack!)

(This length of distance was necessary because Kidani is designed with two winding arms stretched far out in order to maximize the amount of savannah view accessible by the rooms. I understand. I just don’t like it.)

Then we also faced the reality that the family restaurant at Animal Kingdom is in the OTHER resort building (Jambo House) another 700 metres or so down the winding road. So more walking. It was determined early on that I was clearly the weakest link in the family chain. I lagged behind, I found excuses not to eat; I think, in fact, I napped one day instead of joining the crew for supper.

In short, if you ever go to Animal Kingdom Resort as a family, stay at Jambo House: it’s more kid friendly. More importantly, it’s more ME-friendly. Whew.

(Jambo House has fewer rooms with savannah view. It does have a great kids playstructure, though oddly the pool at Kidani Village was better for the kiddies. Strange choice, really, to put all the kid stuff in Jambo and drop the ball on the pool. But these are, quite literally, the definition of First World Problems.)

Now let’s talk about Disney and the rampant face of consumerism.

Wow, do they know how to take your dollars. In 2013 they instituted a new program called “Magic Bands.” (Like McDonald’s, with their ever-present “McProducts,” everything at Disney is magic this and magic that.) The magic band is a plastic bracelet that snaps around your wrist, sporting the familiar image of the bulbous-eared Mickey and available in a variety of designer colours. You have to order the colour ahead of time, and we didn’t know about this program until we showed up, so our “magic bands” were an oddly-chosen dull gray. I can only assume they charge you for the colours, or why else use something so un-Disney as a plain accessory?

If you don’t like the colour of your magic band, they also have a plethora of covers you can purchase for the low price of $8 a pop. In the real world, 8 bucks for this little swatch of cloth is robbery. At Disney, where prices start at 20 and go up, it’s about the cheapest thing you can buy that isn’t destined to be eaten.

So already they’ve got you buying multiple 8 dollar band covers, but the real genius of the magic band is that with a simple swipe, you can charge ANYTHING to your room. It’s painless. Dangerously painless. You forget that you just dropped two hundred bucks on supper for the crew, and another hundred on shirts, and OH MY GOD, they have a Star Wars store! and LEGO! and such TAAASTY ice cream, and you get your hotel bill at the end of your stay and you realize Oh. THERE’S the pain.

In a way, it’s sort of sad we live in a world where you pay for things after you’ve enjoyed them. You go out for supper, you have a good meal, you’re sitting back and digesting, totally content, and then BANG! The bill. It sours an otherwise glorious experience.

Now I’m not saying getting the “Magic Bill” (they don’t call it that, by the way, though maybe they should, to ease the sting) spoiled the experience. It just is a crappy way to end a really great vacation.

Except that ended up being not true. The really crappy way to end your vacation is a thirteen hour travel day. When are they going to crack that teleportation problem? Jeez!

Now THAT would be a “Magic Express.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Disney Part I

Disney World. Ah, Disney World. Though geographically located in Florida, it’s really its own little collection of city states. In Florida, you are allowed to shoot someone dead if you feel threatened. In Disney, hordes of every-ready broom carriers snatch up the garbage your kid drops almost before it hits the ground.

Come back to your hotel, and a smiling greeter looks you in the eye and says warmly “Welcome home.” These greeters, it should be noted, are nothing like Wal-Mart greeters. None of them are retired or disabled. Disney is all about appearances, and in their magical world, no one ages or is born with Down syndrome, apparently. (Another note about their hiring practices: between the last time I went and this outing, a gap of three years, the visible minorities hired have vastly increased. The majority of them are black, though, not Latino, which surprised me. However, I was pleased to see some more colour being added to the Disney family.)

Garbage cans abound, but recycling bins were rare, which I thought was strange. The people picking up trash are given these cool grippy-sticks, so they can snatch refuse without having to bend down twelve thousand times a day. I wish they’d sold THOSE in their gift stores, cause I would totally have bought one. For a lazy guy like me, the ability to add an extra meter to my reaching distance would have been an awesome boon. Think how many times I’d be able to avoid getting off the couch! Anyway, though, the point is, Disney does its absolute best to keep their facilities looking clean and friendly. They do a good job at this.

They also have a whole system of shuttle busses that will take you from the resorts to any of the parks as well as the hotbed of Disney consumerism known as Downtown Disney. These motor coaches (as Disney calls them) are a welcome respite from having to fight traffic yourself on unfamiliar roads, then having to find a parking spot only slightly closer than the moon, then later having to find that same spot again when you’re tired and worn out. I love the bus system. The sense of profound relief I felt every time that bus pulled up to the curb never left me.

What I don’t love about it, though, is the constant Disney-voice blaring from the speakers. I swear I almost know the message by heart after a week. “Welcome to [wherever you are], home of [some kind of attractions]. Please stay seated while the motor coach is in motion. If you have to stand, please use the handrails above. Please stay seated until the motor coach comes to a complete stop, gather your belongings, and take small children by the hand.” Depending on your mood, the message could be humorous or irritating.

The Disney-voice, though, was a motif of the trip. Any time you had a spare moment to relax and sit somewhere, whether you were on a tour, a monorail, a train, or a bus, the Disney-voice (sometimes automated, sometimes coming from a real live person) would harangue you with “fun”  or “helpful” information. The Disney-voice, incidentally, was never an “inside voice” kind of volume. It made me feel like I was the guest of a person who secretly didn’t want me to stay long, and was saying “NO, PLEASE, STAY A LITTLE LONGER” at the top of their lungs in a passive aggressive way to get me to move on. Which, in a way, is what the Disney motive was, I suppose. They have a LOT of people to shuffle from Point A to Point B, and they can’t afford to have exhausted parents slumped in the seats, taking up valuable real estate.

And this brings me to the crowds. We went over Christmas, and everyone of our friends who has Disney Lore at a high level warned us the crowds would be crazy. Maybe because of this expectation, I didn’t find them too bad. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Disney parks were absolute THRONGS of people, particularly from about 12 noon to 3 pm, but we never really had a problem getting where we wanted to go, or doing what we wanted to do. Lines moved briskly, and the Disney people are experts at keeping things moving. They know what they’re doing, let me tell you.

I’ll give you an example. After a fireworks show, we were looking to escape. The park entrance was on the other side of the world from us, alas, so we joined the mass of people heading that way. At the first intersection, a Disney cast member with one of those flashlights ushers use, was directing people at right angles from where we wanted to go. He didn’t explain, and we were too tired to make an issue of it. Maybe a giant Mickey was blocking the way or maybe there was a surprise parade stalled in the road ahead. So we went where he directed. There was a whole line of these guys, sending people, hundreds of us, in what looked to be the wrong way.

Then we turned a corner, and found the staff had opened up a secret “employees only” route that led behind the scenes. We were suddenly in an open street, able to move at a full walk without being pressed on all sides by bodies. The secret passage funneled us back into the main roads near the exit, and just like that, we were out. Now, I don’t know how much time we actually saved in that move, but imagine the joy of walking swiftly when a moment before you’d been shuffling along surrounded on all sides by people intent on inhibiting your forward momentum. It was a genius move, and the whole week was filled with that sort of logistical mastery.

And on that note, an instance of a Disney triumph, we’ll end Part One of my journey.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Coming home

I went to Florida over Christmas this year. Not just anywhere in Florida, either, but to the Happiest Place on Earth! (Does Disney have that trademarked? I should expect a “cease and desist” letter from their lawyers any day now.) It’s my third visit to Disney World, and probably won’t be my last (I married a woman who is truly, deeply, bafflingly in love with all things Disney, and since I am a willow in the wind, I go where she goes). I’ve got a post or two about Disney and the vacation in general, but what I want to talk about first is the homecoming.

First, like all sane Canadians, I’m not a big fan of that mystical number where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales collide, namely 40 degree below zero (they do it again around 11 degrees, but no one gets excited about such a non-offensive number). Apparently we had decent weather while I was away, then we got plunged back into the deep freeze in time for my flight to land in Winnipeg. There was a plane-wide groan when the pilot announced the current temperature, let me tell you.

However, I will take the cold. There are compensations. For instance, I don’t have to turn my shoes upside down in the morning to get rid of scorpions, I don’t have to sleep under mosquito netting or risk malaria, our spiders never get bigger than something you can safely squish under a slipper, and no one around here ever lost their home due to a hurricane. And perhaps it’s the cold that makes us almost desperately friendly.

Oh sure, when you’re here every day, you don’t really notice it. Your mental “friendliness meter” gets set to the local social climate. But go away for a bit, and man, it’s obvious our local folks are awesome.

Case in point: airport security. (Yes, this is anecdotal evidence, so it has no scientific merit, but we all live in anecdotal worlds, so it counts for real human experience. Anyway…)

On our trip out, the American custom officer was grim-faced and threateningly somber. She asked how long it had been since we’ve visited the States. One of our party hadn’t been down in at least ten years, and said so. The immediate reaction? A blunt and terse “Why not?!” We were all a little stunned. I wanted to say “Cause your politicians are nuts and you loonies keep electing them” but thought that might end with a visit to a small white room and an unofficial prostate exam. When I answered “Where do you work?” with “I’m a house-husband” I got a serious stink eye.

Now come back. I gave the same answer to the Canadian custom officer. She smiled and said “Oh, I know what that’s about!” Both women. Both working the same job. Yet one made us feel like criminals for daring to spend money in their country, and the other acted like a human being.

Next I moved on to the parking attendant. I had misplaced my ticket, so he had no idea how long I’d been in the parkade. Yet I explained the situation to him, told him the car had been there for eight days, and he just nodded and took payment. He said if people lied, they usually claimed they’d only been there for five minutes. Still, he had no proof I hadn’t been parked there for a month or more. Instead of making my life miserable when all I wanted was to make that final marathon drive home, he let me go on my way with a shrug and a smile.

Basically, the first two people I encountered could have made my life a temporary hell. Instead they sent me on my way with as little delay as possible. You can’t believe the smile on my face for their tiny kindnesses. (Or maybe you can, if you’ve spent a day with two kids that started at 5 am and ended 12 hours later in an airport 3200 kilometres away.)

What’s the point? I love my country, and I’m glad to be home. The warm cockles of my heart are holding the frigidity of January at bay, at least for a bit.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Merry Christmas to Me!

For years, every time I’ve cracked the tab on a Diet Dr. Pepper, someone in the room invariably says “That causes cancer, you know.” Well, those nay-sayers can officially SUCK IT!

That’s right, boys and girls. There is NO scientific evidence that links the calorie-saving aspartame in my DDP to cancer or any other health concerns. Of course, scientific evidence is rarely viewed as gospel by people who don’t like something. Moments after a friend posted this link, comments popped up like nightshade mushrooms about how it was a conspiracy by Big Aspartame, how aspartame gave them migraines, how aspartame stole their girlfriend, slashed the tires on their pick-up truck, and left their guitar out of tune (or maybe that’s a country song). 

The same tired arguments get trotted out every time science dares to prove or disprove something people believe in. It drives me nuts. This insanity used to be mostly figurative, but I’m worried it’s becoming literal. The failure of our culture to instil a rational thought process in the public is our biggest mistake, the pivotal error from which all others depend. The ability to absorb a premise, examine it for fallacies, and excrete a reasoned opinion has always been a rarity. It may seem we are worse than ever, but I suspect that’s only because the Internet and a “global village” expose us to so many more uninformed opinions than our ancestors.

I offered what I felt was a rational rejoinder to this maelstrom of lunacy: namely, that anecdotal evidence is NOT something we should be basing societal decisions on. To my delight and surprise, most of the comments AFTER my appeal to rationality have been along the same vein. Whew.

Nevertheless, I came within a micrometer of getting truly involved in an Internet Comment War, and if there are any lessons to be learned in life, it is these:

1. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
2. Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
3. Never get drawn into an Internet conflict.

For those interested in the article, here's the link: