Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Open Letter to Our Future Mayor and Council

There are now five days until we all head to the polls to cast our ballots. At the end of the day 26 out of 35 of you will be unhappy with the day's events and nine of you will be our representatives. You'll be charged with guiding the operations, growth, and future of Red Deer over the next four years, and for being a part of the planning that will chart the course for the next 30 - 50 years.

My words here are on behalf of the community of reasonably-minded people, who truly believe that our future lies in creating a thoughtful, environmentally and economically sustainable, multi-cultural community; one that encourages business, promotes kindness, fosters environmental stewardship and ensures that we watch out for and support our fellows.

In short. I am speaking for all the citizens who want you to "do-right" by the entire community, not just those who can afford new toys, complete meals, winter vacations, and who think "like you". 

We have been subjected to the worst electoral season I can remember. While many candidates have been trying to engage in critical thought, full discourse, and well-rounded conversation, many others have treated us like children. Nenshi refers to his philosophy as "politics in full sentences." This is an ideal that all candidates - and future Mayors and Councillors - should ascribe to. Yet, there has been an element this season, that is all too-willing to reduce discourse to baseless accusations, twisted information, deliberate obfuscation of information, and most disgustingly, personal attacks and character assassinations.

Stop it. 

Growth, planning, social programs, environmental stewardship, and economic progress cannot flourish in this climate. It just can't. Reducing everything to carefully-parsed data, and black/white arguments will bind Council and prevent anything from getting done. Careful thought, full sentences, and conciliation are the markers on the path forward.

I've chosen to address two of the biggest issues to come out of this rancid electoral season: Spending and accountability.

First, some thoughts about spending: Funding proposals for capital projects and pilots will appear in front of you. It will be all too easy to vote no, saying "the majority of the people won't use this." At the risk of being the guy who turns on the light in a dark room, I'll point out that most of these requests don't service "the majority of the population". The skateboard parks, the Collicut Centre, the Rec Centre, the bike lanes, any new subdivision... they all serve minorities. Sometimes they're regional minorities, such as the case with the Collicut Centre or a new subdivision. Sometimes they're demographic minorities, as with the skateparks. Sometimes they're tiny minorities, as with the bike lanes. But, they all contribute to our overall quality of life and they all contribute to our community's appeal to people looking to invest, move, and create wealth here. More importantly, while they may serve minorities, the minorities they serve need those services and facilities. 

Also, for those of you requiring an economics refresher, please learn the difference between debt (which is used to fund big expensive things) and deficit (which would be tied to an operational budget - and something that Red Deer doesn't have).

Secondly, some brief words on "accountability" (the quotes are deliberate): There will come a time when you'll need to move a discussion "in camera". Those of you running on accountability platforms are going to have to weigh your responsibilities. Are you going to hold up progress by refusing to go "in camera", or are you going to alienate your constituency and join the off-record conversation. You can't have it both ways. By campaigning on a myth of accountability, you'll have potentially painted yourself into a corner.

Sometime around April, via Facebook, I flippantly told one candidate, who shall remain nameless, that unless they could hold two divergent opinions at the same time, and see the merit in both of them, that they should back off and let the adults work. While this wasn't particularly eloquent, the point stands. Municipal politics isn't the forum for polarizing points of view. It is not the forum for absolutes.It certainly isn't the place for anybody who lacks empathy.

Part of your job over the next four years will be to empathize with all the citizens of Red Deer. Your job is to carefully weigh the information before you and to make the decisions that benefit current residents and future generations. Your job, is to be able to look a pie and realize that there is more than one way to carve and serve it. If you get your job wrong, the pie will go rancid and we'll all lose. Get it right and our community will thrive and evolve.

Submitted respectfully, to all candidates.

Todd Nivens

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Simple Summer Saturday Mornings

The annual Red Deer Farmer's Market has come and gone. Six months ago we began our Saturday morning pilgrimages down the Spruce Drive bike lanes, into the free bike lockup, and off into the morass of human flesh; searching for lemonade, coffee, fish tacos, carrots, beans, hummus, cabbage, and any other locally-made, locally-grown food we could fit in our mouths and in our backpacks. Aside from food, we don't buy much at the market. We don't need weeders or pottery, carved furniture or lawn ornaments. We have our favourite vendors: Innisfail growers for Beck Farm's carrots, KJs for lemonade. Shan and I eat breakfast at the 'Stache trailer and the kids eat waffles from Victoria Waffles (local and scratch made is better than franchised and mix).

We have our route through the market and it rarely changes. The bikes go into the lockup and we wander down the first aisle, weaving our way up and down the rows, dodging wagons and baby strollers, mobility-chairs and wobbly toddlers. We aren't in a hurry. Our friends are there ready to stop, let the traffic flow around and through our group, and have a chat. There's coffee to get to down the driveway and Foui's banter to go along with his hummus.

Despite plans and promises to get together "one of these days" we only saw our friend Peter and his girls at the market; five times. Each time making plans that never really seemed to come together in the busyness of summer. If it wasn't for our Saturday morning routine, we'd have never seen him.

There was some evolution to our market mornings this year. Our son got his first job: Making and selling kettlecorn with the crew at KJs. Our daughter rode up all the hills on her bike, without needing to stop and walk. Toward the end of August the candidates for Mayor, Council, and the two school boards started staking out their spots. Some clinging to corners like a ship at anchor never wavering in their choice of space. Others like Cindy Jefferies, were more fluid. You never knew where Cindy was going to have her booth. The candidates brought new people into the market and new conversation.

That's the magic of the Red Deer Farmer's market. There are few other places in the City that I feel such a sense of connection to my fellow Red Deerians. Each weekend 20,000 of us wander in the cool morning air, and create a shared experience of what it means to be a community. For five and a half glorious hours, on 26 consecutive Saturdays we put our differences aside. We don't bicker about bike lanes and spending, accountability and development. We just "be". We light up when we see our friends, get a jolt from that first sip of coffee, get nourished by the food and conversation we take in, and make each others' Saturdays start off just right. Spontaneous plans for barbecues, firepits, parties, drinks, dates, are made at the market. Market mornings are loaded with the potential for weekend fun, unimagined the night before.

The Market is the manifestation of how I envision the future of Red Deer. It's dense yet happy. It's commerce but it's simple. It's conversation not accusation. It's multicultural and traditional. It's familiar and exotic. It's bikes and cars and transit and pedestrians and skate boards and strollers. It's got room for everybody. Nobody has ever been told "I'm sorry it's full", and been turned away from the market. At the market there's always room for one more; one more person, one more great idea, one more voice.

With winter on the horizon and snow already being made at the ski hill, my family will have other Saturday morning traditions; skiing, snowshoeing, and winter biking. However in a couple of weeks we'll have eaten the last of the kettle corn, and the carrot bag will be getting low. In a month or two the honey will be purchased from the store, and the only time we'll feel the push and pull of the human wave is the rare occasion when we venture into *shudder, the mall. And we'll grow wistful.

We'll miss our market community. No longer able to just bump into our fellows and friends, we'll need to make plans and do "things". Our winters become scheduled and our interactions become less fluid, more separate from the flow. Our community becomes a little more detached.

I've traveled all over Canada, and the States, and through east Africa. No place I've been in North America has a market like we do. Sure there are lots of other Farmers' Markets out there, but Red Deer's just feels special. It makes us one. It makes us whole.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

So Much Love

When I was around four I got my first two wheeler bike. It was orange, had tiny 12" wheels, upright ape-hanger handle bars, a double crossbar, a small banana seat, solid rubber tires on metal rims, and spokes as thick as your baby finger. I vividly remember falling in love with that bike when it saved me from being stung by a wasp. I pedaled hard, and she raced me to safety.

My next bike was red with white fenders. Today it would be retro-cool with its curved crossbar and wide handlebars. I think my poor father replaced eight or nine back tires on it, and our street was streaked with long, black skid marks. To this day I get a charge out of coaster-brake skids. There's just something satisfying about jamming your foot back on the pedal and sending the back of the bike around in a long, screeching arc.

A black Raleigh Rampar BMX, a red 10 speed of unknown manufacture, a copper Apollo ten speed (which is still in my basement), a black Raleigh Ozark, and a stunningly-painted blue and white swirl GT Tequesta, all led me to my current bike, my beloved green Brodie.

When I was ten I got my first skateboard; a Hobie Weaver Woodie.

In an age where all the kids had yellow "banana" boards, and the world (outside of California) had not yet heard of Tony Alva, Stacey Peralta and the Z-boys, this thing was the bomb. This board led the way to a Tony Hawk board, a Skull Skates, and most recently it's led to me "borrowing" my son Kaden's longboard for errands.

Today I am a 42 year-old supposed adult. I have a job and responsibilities, a family, a mortgage; all the things that go along with being "grown up". I have a truck that gets us up and down the ski hill, pulls the tent trailer, and on days when I can't ride, I reluctantly use it to get to and from work.

I say reluctantly because I have never gotten the same joy from driving, as I have from riding and skating. There is something indescribably freeing about swinging your leg over the seat, standing on the pedals and making yourself move. Every single day I get a little reminder of what it was like to be eight-years-old and having the freedom to glide my way to school.

While there are challenges with commuting by bike - weather and traffic are at the top of the list - the payback you get from riding is immense. You cannot cycle to work and arrive in a bad mood. It's just not possible. You might be cold, wet, tired, or sweaty. Maybe you crashed along the way. But you'll still get off your bike, park and lock it up, give it a little backwards glance, and grin as you head through the door. You'll feel a great little rush of nostalgia mixed with anticipation every single morning when you arrive. I keep waiting for it to wear off, but after 38 years of riding a bike it never does. 

Maybe we're getting away with something. Maybe we've tapped into something that keeps us young at heart, as well as keeping us young in body. I do not know a single person who rides their bike on a regular basis, who wishes they were doing something different. 

My question for the night is this: How can something that universally makes people happy, create so much angst among non-cyclists? 

Granted, we're caught up in election fever right now and the collective brain of Red Deer is operating under the dual narcotics of power and manufactured outrage, but the amount of anger being directed at cyclists is astounding. Put the issue of our bike lanes aside and the anger is even harder to understand. 

People are demanding that cyclists ride on the sidewalk/off the sidewalk/only on Waskasoo Park trails. They are downright pissed that there are some folks in the world who choose to commute in some other way, than by driving a car.

I'll let you in on our little secret. Here's what cyclists think of people who drive their cars to and from work and school. NOTHING. We don't give them a second thought, beyond the normal attention paid to them in traffic. Riding a bike is fun. That's it. While drivers are getting fueled on their daily dose of crappy pop music, bad news, and road rage, we're having a ball. You see while drivers get in their cars and listen to the kids yell at each other, and deal with other slow moving cars, and peer through foggy windows, and look longingly for parking, and wait in line to buy gas, and generally arrive at work exhausted; we've had some fresh air, some exercise, and that daily reminder of how we felt when we were kids.

I love my bike. I love every bike and every skateboard I've ever owned. If choosing to grab a little bit of childhood each and every day on my way to work makes me somehow a bad person, I can safely ignore the accusers. And so can you. 

Give it a try. Pull your bike out of storage, strap on a helmet, remind yourself how to make the appropriate hand signals, and head out to work. The eight-year-old inside your brain will giggle with delight. And you know what, you just might as well.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

From Evolution to the Mily Way

We have a sign on the back of one of the doors at work. It says "Science is a package deal. Don't believe in evolution? Then no airplanes, internet, or medicine for you."

The beautiful thing about science is that it doesn't require you to believe it. Its laws are immutable and its theories are supported by experimentation. You don't have to believe in gravity. We know how it works, why it manifests itself the way it does, and how it affects the objects in space because of science that went into creating its laws. Believe it or don't, it just doesn't matter; gravity still works. A lack of belief doesn't make an airplane fall out of the sky, it doesn't shut down the internet, it doesn't stop medicine from working, and it won't stop a cheetah from killing a gazelle.

Likewise believing in something won't make it true. You can believe, all you want, that the leaves on a poplar tree will come out purple next spring. The science of biology says that they'll be green, just like every year. Believe all you want that things will be different, but it just ain't so. You can believe with your heart of hearts that the earth is the centre of the universe. The science of cosmology proves otherwise. You can believe with all the fervency of a Sunday morning televangelist, that man walked with the dinosaurs. The sciences of palaeontology, geology, and archaeology show - definitively - why this isn't the case.  

I love science of all kinds. I love data and research. I love the history of science, and I love the bright places it can lead us in the future. I love the arcane verbiage of physics, and the long descriptive words of biology. I love that the evolution of fruit flies can turn on a single environmental variable. I love that science can be simple and mind-bogglingly complicated -at the same time. I love that science can get such a hold on a person, that they will spend their lives studying the minutia of the quantum packet so they can help the rest of us understand the universe and our place in it. I love that I've met scientists who know more about the mathematical relationship between the rings in a snail's shell, than they do about pop stars and celebrities. I love that they sacrifice time, money, personal safety all in the pursuit of the knowledge that makes us all better.

Is science perfect? Well, the process of science is pretty close to it. Is the application of science perfect? Definitely not. Science did not get us into the predicaments of global warming, deforestation, water contamination, pollution, desertification, and the other calamities that have befallen us. People created these problems. These are human-caused problems that sprang from our greed, our need to consume, and our manipulation of science to feed these base instincts.

The science of creating usable fuel from the sticky, black, remnants of prehistoric plants, is amazing. It's not science's fault that we ramped up production of fossil fuels and began to slowly toast the planet.

Does science have the answers to everything? Not yet. There are many wonders in the universe that we don't understand. There are animal adaptations we've seen, that we can't explain. There are phenomena that occur daily, that may confound us. What we do have, thanks to science and scientists, is a body of knowledge from which we can learn, and which we can evolve as we learn more. We also have a process - a method - for research, experimentation, and for the creation of new knowledge. This is where the true value of science lies, and I think it's the most important idea that grew out of the enlightenment.

Early scientists recognized and accepted with humility, that they didn't know everything. They looked at the belief structures and decided that there needed to be a different way. Knowledge, they understood, couldn't be controlled by a few powerful men, who would tell the people what to believe. The scientists of the enlightenment risked their lives to show the world that it was good to ask questions. They took enormous personal risk to try to understand living processes, the mechanics of the universe, atmospheric phenomena, and evolution; beyond the dogma of the top-down belief system.

If we want to believe in something or have faith in something, then let us have believe that we can continue to learn and grow. Let us have faith that our creativity and intelligence will apply the processes of science and that we'll eventually unravel all the mysteries.

To do anything else leaves us clouded in the myopathy of myth and blinded by the fear of the unknown.

Here's something to either end or start your day with.

Monday, September 16, 2013

And I Didn't Think I Had A Blog Post Tonight

This got posted on Facebook tonight. Please read it and then come back to this post

I started writing a comment and it kind of got away from me. I cut my comment out and pasted it here.

I'm tired of watching young men and women get sent to places to fight and die for a constructed ideal.
I'm tired of watching innocent children get bombs dropped on them.
I'm tired of watching world leaders choose who to defend based on the innocents' strategic important to those of us in the West.
I'm tired of having to listen to the same bullshit we've been hearing since we were kids, watching the Vietnam war unfold.
I'm tired of video games glorifying violence while society decries it when people of colour use it.
I'm tired of my tax dollars buying ammunition, guns, airplanes, and other tools of war, when our infrastructure is failing, our schools are underfunded, and while our health care system places no value on the most vulnerable in society because it can't afford to.

Mostly, I'm tired of wars being waged because too many people are too damn stupid, lazy, or pigheaded to figure out a way to think through a problem and find a solution.

Yes, many people are going to die. But instead of accepting this as an inevitable and marching off to war; being fed a lie that somehow our oh-so-comfortable way of life is being defended, let's perhaps ask our leaders to do better.

I'm tired of the jingoism that says "Our soldiers are fighting for our freedom." Because guess what. They're not. Whether or not the rebels or the gov't prevails in Syria will make not one bit of difference to your or my freedom. It didn't matter in Viet Nam, it didn't matter in Iraq (both times), and it sure as hell doesn't matter to your freedom (or mine) now.

If defending innocent people from war crimes, from dictators, from genocide, from human rights violations, from all the monsters in the world - as our leaders would have us believe - then we'd be sending soldiers to Nepal, to Yemen, to Guatemala, to the DRC, and to myriad other places around the world where people suffer at the hands of others. But we don't. We send our soldiers to the places that are strategically important. And we lie to them and tell them they're serving their country.

Maybe they are. But they're being done a huge disservice. These men and women who go off and fight and die under Canadian, British, American, and other flags, they aren't serving the people of their country. We don't want them to go to these places and we don't benefit from them being there. They go because governments and economies benefit. That innocent people get helped is a side benefit.

It is in these people that the soldier should find strenght. They are the lucky ones. They are the ones to be in the fortunate enough position of living in a hellhole that has something the west wants. They get saved because of our greed, and because our soldiers are willing to fight to preserve our sense of entitlement to the world's riches.

Let's stop lying to our soldiers, and to the desperate people in all corners of the globe - they're better, and smarter than that. So are we.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Questions You Should Be Asking

Hello my fellow Red Deerians.

You may have noticed a change in the air this spring. As the snow has slowly melted and the draining waters have ebbed from our curbs and gutters, the air feels different. It's stiff, with a rancid, unseemly nose. The air cuts and burns as you wade through your day, and things this spring feel... fetid.

This is a rare air for Red Deer. The mountains to the west usually waft in the freshness of new growth as the wind rolls across the foothills and into our midst. The northern winds on the other hand, make things crisp and bright; cleaning our senses.

So why this year? Why has the freshness of spring and the crispness of the north foresaken us this year? Why has the air turned rank with the odious renderings of the contents from a thousand stagnant sewers?

Why, it's an election year of course. This is the time when metaphorical bright lights are shot out with BB gun-wielding thugs, bent on creating fear, sewing disdain, and championing false revolution. This is the time when the fringes of the population temporarily lose their minds - or perhaps they lost their minds long ago and simply choose this occasion to reveal that fact. Regardless, we have reached that tri-annual orgy of name-calling, hand-wringing, and the general demonstration of a lack of understanding of how work gets done in a municipality.

This year, I'm pleading with my fellow citizens to elevate the political discourse from the muck and mire that a new set of voices have dragged it down to. You see, the Gang of Eight is so bent on telling you what's wrong - as they perceive it - that they've neglected to tell you what they'll do right. They're so bent on wailing about bike lanes and their perception of what it means for a government to be "accountable" that they have forgotten to show what their vision of a future looks like.

I expect big things from my Council. I expect them to be articulate, intelligent, and honest. I expect them to have ideas for our future. I expect them to be big thinkers and to be the progenitors of concept-level ideas. I expect them to get work done, without stooping to the level of micro-managing the City bureaucracy. Mostly I expect them to be involved, and to have come from a background of civic engagement and involvement.

So, to that end here is my plea to my fellow citizens. Please ignore the  fear-mongering, the blame casting, and any party who is dividing issues into black/white, good vs bad sides. Ignore anybody who is incapable of having a nuanced, balanced, and dare I say reasoned conversation. Ignore anybody who cannot demonstrate an understanding of what the role of Council is, as defined by the Municipal Government Act.

Instead please ask these two questions of every candidate for council.  Ask the questions at election forums, in letters to the editors, in posts to their Facebook timelines, and on their Twitter feeds. The questions are as follows (one of them I asked last week, on Facebook):

1. Tell me your vision for our community. I don't want to hear negativity or blame-casting. I want to know how you picture Red Deer in the future. What will we become? How will the Nation see us? How will we as a community contribute to each others' well-being. 

I want to see what happens when you let your imagination run wild. Be bold.

2. Show me what you have done for our community. How have you contributed to Red Deer being a better place? What are your volunteer commitments? What civic committees have you sat on or contributed to? What service organizations do you belong to?

Any good candidate for Council will be able to give eloquent, complete, and concise answers to these questions. They will be able to demonstrate a past track record of direct-action work, aimed at making things better for the community at large; especially for those most in need.

If we all ask these questions. If we all listen to the answers. If we all steer away from rhetoric, blame, polarization, and easy answers, then we can truly make progress.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

That's a Hell of A Milestone, Mile 2

Ok. This is the post that I've somewhat morbidly been waiting to write. It's been stirring around in my head for a long time and I want to make sure that I get it right.

At 2793 gun deaths since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Americans living at home in the United States of America have now killed more of their fellow citizens, than died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. In World Trade Centre Towers 2606 people lost their lives, to outside forces.

Let that sink in for a moment.

On 9/11 2606 people rode the elevator to work, only to have their lives snuffed out, by foreigners - the "other" - in one fell swoop; in an act that many would say was unpreventable. At least unpreventable given the government of the day. There were nine hijackers on the planes that hit the towers. At a rate of 290:1 victims to killers, that's about as impersonal an act as you can get. And yes I'm saying it's impersonal even though the hijackers died, because there was little face-to-face contact between the killers and the victims.

In the three months since Sandy Hook 2793 people died at the direct hands of another individual. Even considering the multiple-death shooting, the rate of victims to killers is under 2:1. These are very, very personal acts.

In the wake of 9/11, strict controls were put in place governing how we were to fly. Strict controls were put in place to specify what we could and could not bring on an airplane. In the wake of 9/11 we have been told that we cannot bring liquids in quantities greater than 50 ml. We have been told that we must take off our shoes when passing through security. In America, they have been told to surrender any sense of dignity they might have to pass through a full-body scanner; a scanner that shows the operator an essentially naked human body. Since 9/11 I can't take a set of nail clippers on a plane because they create a security risk. In the most extreme cases, people have been denied access to flights because the t-shirt they were wearing was thought to be "dangerous". In the wake of 9/11 all of us sheeple stepped in line with the new security measures because we were told that it was "safer".

2606 dead, killed by anonymous strangers with a couple of airplanes, in the blink of an eye, mostly unknowing of their fate, due to a massive error in judgement by the Bush administration resulted in some of the most inconvenient, draconian travel rules the free-world has ever seen. And we were all largely ok with it.

2793 people, including 20 innocent children in an elementary school, killed in circumstances that are largely up-close and personal, full of fear, by  - conservatively - 2700 other people, each with a firearm. Yet Americans can't even have a conversation about gun control.

My question is simple. Restricting your (our) ability to travel became a national security issue. Why haven't guns in America become a national security issue?

Why is it ok to police people and restrict their ability to carry toothpaste, mouthwash, hair gel, nail clippers, cologne, and bottles of water onto an airplane, in the name of safety... and yet, it's not ok to talk about restricting access to certain types of guns? Forgive my incredulity but I really don't understand this dichotomy.

If you're going to take 100 ml of liquid x and mix it into 100 ml of liquid y, on an airplane, while it's flying someone is going to notice. It's complicated stuff that takes at least a little skill to bring to fruition. Hell the shoe-bomb guy brought the functioning device onto the plane, ready to go and he couldn't pull it off because someone noticed. Yes I know that the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters. However, with the cabin doors now being locked and barred, the plane is in little danger of being used as a weapon.

By comparison, how hard is it to get angry at your neighbour, pull out your unrestricted pistol, and shoot the guy? How much training does it take to load an assault rifle, walk into a crowded place and start firing? Almost none.

The really sad part, is that nobody who is ready to have a serious conversation about gun control, is saying "take away all the guns from all Americans". Nobody. Not even Gabby Giffords who, 13 months after being shot in the head, returned to the Senate to ask for a conversation on gun control; rather than gun bans.

The pitifully weak request from us, is to just have a conversation about limiting access to assault weapons, extended capacity magazines, and guns that can fire fully automatic. Yet to hear the NRA, the extreme right-wing tea party, Sarah Palin and crew, and Fox News tell it, you'd be forgiven if you thought the government was coming for all your guns so they can round you up and "take away your freedom."

I know it sounds crazy, but that is exactly the message that the aforementioned is sending out. They seem blissfully unaware that nobody has asked for all the guns, nobody will ask for all the guns, and most poignantly that the government doesn't need to take away the citizens guns. The US government has drones, fighter planes, tanks, amoured personnel carriers, ships, gun boats, the SEALS, helicopters with god-knows-what weaponry, Hummers with laser weapons... they don't need to take the guns from their people because they have more, bigger guns at their disposal.

In a previous post I wrote that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution needs to go. I covered how it's outdated today, and how lonely red-necks with AK-47s do not constitute a "well-regulated militia." I stand by those comments. And for those of you desperately clinging to your firearms up here in Canada, I stand by the assertion that you do not have a right to those guns, up here North of the 49th. We don't have an equivalent to the Second Amendment. But that's digressing a little. As I said above, nobody with a rational argument is saying "take away all the guns." We just want some controls on ownership that will actually contribute to saving innocent lives.

To quote Senator Giffords, "Too many children are dying... Be bold. Be courageous."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Touching Greatness?

Tonight my friend Ted was three rows from someone I know he admires greatly. Ted and his wife spent the night in the company of Gord Downie, and the rest of the Tragically Hip. Ted's written about Gord in at least one post in his blog and the quote at the top of his blogroll is from Gord. He's a good person to admire - actually they both are; Ted and Gord. Speaking specifically of Gord Downie though, a friend of mine once finished a book that he thought Gord would enjoy. So, Jason wrote a note, tucked it into an envelope and mailed it off to Kingston. Four months later, Jason got a package in the mail. It was the book he'd sent off, with a handwritten note: Jason, the book was great. Thanks. Gord Downie. That's class, right there. I can see why Ted would admire a guy like that.

My friend Charla spent this evening in the company of a mega star; spending copious dollars to go to Calgary to see Oprah. Like Ted with Gord, I think Charla sees an inspirational character in Oprah - something that is totally lost on me - and feel a connection to her at her live performances.

Suffice to say, I don't think that I'm stepping too far out of bounds when I say that both Ted and Charla would list meeting Gord and Oprah, respectively, as something they would like to do. They would both likely get something of tremendous value from a potential, intimate meeting; from the chance to sit and talk with someone they greatly admire.

Which got me thinking... who would I like to meet? Who in this world, living right now, would I give up my precious time, to sit down with and have a chat. Taking away all the unattainables - Darwin, Einstein, Marie Curie, P.E. Trudeau, Charles Schultz, and myriad other historically, scientifically, and socially important thinkers - who would I want to meet?

I don't know.

Maybe President Obama because he's such a polarizing figure, who's done more to try to actually lead his people than any other American President in recent memory. Possibly the band They Might Be Giants, to thank them for producing a kids album that encourages children to discover, to learn, and to value the empirical data of science. Perhaps Richard Louv, or as we call him somewhat tongue in cheek, "The Prophet Richard Louv". That's a tough one because on the one hand I'd like to pick his brain about the need to get kids out into nature and where he sees society headed. On the other hand, I'd like to smack him for reducing the issue to snappy catchphrases and idioms. Jon Stewart would likely make the list - one of the few celebrities who I have no reservations about.

But, as far as "popular" people go, I'm afraid that's my short list. A-list celebrities hold no interest for me. Oprah's glow doesn't extend this far, and current "popular" music (while entertaining) is contributing next to nothing in the way of social dialogue. Let's face it, from Michael Vick, to Tiger Woods; and from Manti Teo to Lance Armstrong; from the histrionics of the NHLPA, to the whining of pro tennis players, is there any sports figure worth listening to?

I think that's the problem with the question: What famous person do you want to meet? It can lead to a number of possible negative outcomes. Personally, I don't want to meet a famous person, because I don't care about fame. Part of why we want to meet famous people, can be seen manifested in our fascination with pop culture.

We demand acceptance. We thrive on familiarity. By meeting famous people, yes we may get some insight to them, but what we really gain is the perception of acceptance into their tribe, their clan, their world. Once that meeting takes place, there are a few possible outcomes: You may further identify with that person, potentially shaping your worldview so that it matches with theirs; you may become disillusioned when that person doesn't meet your expectations, forcing you to either reevaluate how you feel about that person, or alternatively, change your values to match theirs  (see Cognitive Dissonance); or you may come away feeling totally ambivalent about the meeting and the person - this may be the best possible outcome because in a way, it would totally validate you as a person.

I'm not knocking anybody for wanting to meet the rich and famous. I am saying that while it can be fun to play the game, be careful what you wish for, and be ready to have to do some serious rearranging of your psyche if things don't go well.

Let me use Oprah as an example here.. A few years ago Oprah decided to give voice to Jenny McCarthy and let her rant incessantly about vaccinations causing autism. Oprah nodded sagely and agreed with Jenny that parents should think long and hard about having their kids vaccinated. Between the two of them, they convinced thousands, tens of thousands of parents, not to vaccinate their kids. This despite there being no peer-reviewed evidence ever published, about a link between vaccinations and autism. They were basing their assertions off of one poorly written, poorly cited and ultimately discredited paper - and McCarthy's belief that her vaccinating her own child, was what caused that child's autism. When that study was finally discredited, Oprah was silent. There was no hauling Jenny back out to account for her actions, the way she just did with Lance. There was no call for an apology the way there had been with James Frey, the author who'd lied to Oprah, on her show.

At the end of the day, Oprah chose to remain silent on an issue that was of far greater importance than whether or not some super-star athlete stuck needles in his arm so that he could ride his bike faster. She was quiet as a dormouse about her part in perpetrating one of the most dangerous public-health unravellings of the 20th century. In the end, Oprah chose to do nothing - which is worse than doing the wrong thing. And so I have to ask myself "Why?". Why would Oprah, a woman beloved by millions, choose to hold Lance Armstrong to account, choose to demand an apology from James Frey, and choose not to bring back Jenny McCarthy for the same treatment.

All I can come up with is money, ratings, and self-identity.

The first two are easy. What are you going to tune in for? Lance Armstrong admits he took performance-enhancing drugs? It was the highest rated Oprah television event ever, I'm sure. Jenny McCarthy talking about being wrong, about medicine... boooorrrriiiiing. Nobody's watching that, so Oprah ignores it.

The self-identity part is trickier and slipperier for Oprah. See, in the case of Lance and James, she was one of us. She was taken in and can claim the same moral indignation as the rest of us. But with McCarthy, Oprah was a willing participant. She helped spread the gospel about the dangers of vaccinations, just much as she spreads the word about her favourite things. In the McCarthy case, if she brings Jenny back on the show, she herself has to admit her own complicity. And, for those of us with normal egos that's hard enough. When you're considered the Queen of television, that's damn near impossible.

And yet, that may be what she wants more than anything: To identify with us, "the normal people." If she doesn't make McCarthy apologize or at least rebut the actual science, then she (Oprah) gets to be a victim, just like you and me. She gets to identify with the rest of us and to be part of our tribe; one that is totally closed off to her because of her fame.

So, Oprah has spoiled me for meeting celebrities. I just don't know where the line between real and fake would lie. I'm not that good a detective. So, for the most part, I'll pass on the famous. I'll dream of meeting Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain researcher who documented her own stroke, while it was happening, Or maybe Alex Zanardi, the Formula One driver who lost both legs in an F1 race and then went on not only to drive competitively again, but to win Gold at the London Paralympics in handbiking (paralympic cycling). Perhaps Neil de Grasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins has some time for me, to discuss where we've come from and where we're going.

Or maybe, I'll just drive to Canmore to hang out with my friend Colin. Colin ran across Canada last year to raise awareness about the plight of overweight, under-active, nature-deprived kids. He did it on his own with no corporate backing. He cashed in his life savings, quit his job, and put his grad school thesis on hold, because he believed that this needed to be done. He has a hell of a lot more credibility and class than Oprah ever will, and there's no doubt about his motivation, his commitment, or his depth of character.

And if Gord Downie ever want to drink a beer on my porch... Ted knows where to find both of us.

Friday, January 18, 2013

That's a Hell of a Milestone

1017 as of 3:20 pm this afternoon.

There have been 1017 people killed by another person with a gun, in the US since the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. That's 1017 lives ended by a firearm, in a month and four days. Let that sink in for a minute. One thousand, seventeen dead people, who but for the easy access to a firearm, may be alive today. One thousand, seventeen people killed in gun-violence in 35 days - in one country. Divide 365/35 and then multiply by 1017 and you get a projection of 10,605 gun-deaths in the US this year.

By comparison, England and Wales had 39 gun-deaths in two years in 2008/2009.

You see there was a spate (actually two) mass shootings in England in the early 2000's and the UK response was to simply ban the private ownership of handguns, semi-automatic rifles, and automatic weapons of any kind. Any NRA gun-nut who tells you "guns don't kill people, people kill people" and that without guns, people will find other ways to kill people are completely out of touch. The takeaway message from the UK is  crystal clear. Take away the guns and fewer people will die due to person-on-person violence. Period. There is no intelligent (or semi-intelligent) rebuttal to this fact. No guns = fewer violent deaths.

Ahh, says the NRA and the paranoid-tea-party-gun nuts, we have a constitutional right to bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Have you ever read the second amendment? It does not say you can have any gun you want, for any reason you want to have it. In fact, it doesn't really say that anybody in the States has the right to have a gun, under any circumstances.

Here's what it says: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  Most pro-gun-advocates gloss over the first 1/2 of that statement in the original wording of the amendment. The part about "A well regulated militia" is grossly underestimated.

Jim-Bob in his safehouse/barn/basement/armoury/delusional-state is not "A well regulated militia." He's a guy with a bunch of guns. That's it. This is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote "A well- regulated militia": The term militia (pron.: /mɨˈlɪʃə/),[1] or irregular army, is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as an army composed of ordinary citizens[2]rather than professional soldiers or the whole body of physically fit civilians eligible by law for military service to call for service in times of emergency. 

The people whose right "to keep and bear arms", are the people who would be expected to be called upon for service in times of a state or national emergency. However, we live in different times now. It's not 1776 any more. The second amendment has itself been amended by the supreme court of the US to include wording that allows for the lawful possession of a firearm for legitimate purposes; such as home-defence. The individual states have expanded that definition to allow for the argument that people need things like Barrett .50 calibre sniper rifles "for home defence", or "hunting". This is a rifle that fires a bullet the size of your thumb, through a concrete block.

Furthermore, the "well regulated militias" themselves have morphed into groups like the Connecticut 51st Militia or the Illinois Sons of Liberty whose stated goals seem to be related to the idea that the Federal government is coming to get them and take away their freedom; their freedom being the right to stockpile as many firearms as humanly possible. These aren't the only militia groups out there, convinced that "The State" is planning a campaign of tyranny against them. Here's a list of group who feel that the US government has absolutely nothing better to do, than invade them and take away their oddly-perverted view of "freedom".

It's these groups and their followers, the NRA, and the unaffiliated so-called Patriots, that are preventing the US from having an actual adult conversation about guns and gun violence. See, they just don't care about the 10,000 or so annual gun deaths in America. To these people and groups, it's more important to adhere blindly to a 237 idea that the citizens should be protecting their country and to do that, they have the right to own a gun.

Guess what, in 237 years, the US has managed to create the most powerful armed forces on the planet. They don't need militia groups to help protect the State. Addressing the other issue, if the American government really did want to overturn American freedoms and values, do these militia groups really think they can stand up to a military that has tanks, fighter planes, the largest navy in the world etc...? Really?

I think it's safe to say that the American way of life is secure. They are free to go on watching inordinate amounts of TV, free to eat all the processed food they can cram into their statistically unhealthy bodies, frack all the natural gas from the aquifers, and consume all the consumer goods they can (and can't) afford. The government isn't going to get in the way of any of that. They can continue to drive more cars per capita than anybody else on the planet, travel to whatever county will let them enter, and troll the internet looking for pictures of cats doing funny things. 

All the rest of the world wants, is for them to stop killing each other. We don't hate you America. If we did, we wouldn't hound you incessantly to rethink your antiquated gun laws. This is a plea from your concerned global community. Most of the rest of us have managed to get beyond the need to own and shoot guns at each other (at least domestically; we apparently have little trouble shooting people in other countries), and we want the same for you and your kids.

Have the discussion now. Asking you to give up guns that fire bullets as fast as you can pull the trigger, or to give up guns that can be hidden in a coat pocket, is not a sign that your freedom is under threat. Rather, it's a sign that the world thinks you are still too young to have the responsibility that your founding fathers gave you, those 237 years ago. You can't be trusted not to use your easily accessed, easily hidden firearms against each other, much like an alcoholic can't be trusted not to drink and drive. So, why not give up the most problematic guns? Call it FA, Firearms Anonymous. I'm sure the rest of us would help you write a 12 step program. The first step as always, is admitting you have a problem.

As of today there are already 1017 clues, that you have a problem to admit.