Hand Me The Remote

Are you excited about the kick-off of the new fall television season? Or could you care less? When I was a tiny TV watcher many, many years ago, I used to love this time of year. All the new shows starting and barely enough hours in the day to view them all.

Like many people, however, now the new season barely seems like a big deal at all. I emailed a few friends last month with some random magazine list about the Top 25 new network television programs this fall and they both told me they don’t even watch anything on regular television anymore, having switched their allegiances several years ago to specialty channels.

In the ever-evolving world of TV programming, it’s become a huge challenge for the formerly powerful American networks like ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX to bolster their sagging ratings against the formidable competition from outlets like HBO, AMC and Showtime.

Over the past several years, those latter stations have given viewers enticing choices they haven’t had in the past – commercial-free programming, full-length shows that fill most of an hour instead of being chopped up into little bits, and award-winning quality (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc.) without nearly as much censorship as conventional television.

Plus, with viewers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, most of these stations only produce 12-13 episodes per year and run them every week. Network television airs 22-23 episodes of prime time programs and they’re constantly pre-empted for “special events” or during holidays. They also go on hiatus for months at a time, annoying regular viewers and making it difficult to follow storylines.

It’s no wonder people like my friends have pretty much given up on the old-school television many of us grew up on – and switched to shows that are fresh, new and creative.

Now the television landscape is changing again. With the introduction of Netflix a few years ago, people have a whole new way of watching their favourite programs. If you’re unfamiliar with this service, think of it as a giant video store (remember those?) where you have instant access to thousands of movies and television series.

Rather than having to drag out a DVD or Blu-ray disc (remember those?), you flick on a box and pick out whatever the heck you want to watch. All without even having to move your lazy butt from your La-Z-Boy.

Theoretically, you could watch entire seasons of television programs all in one sitting. And that’s exactly what people are doing. Forget commercials. Forget taking a hiatus whenever the network feels like pulling your favourite show from the air. Forget even having to insert a disc in a machine and waiting for ten seconds while it loads.

Of course, not every program or movie is available on Netflix, so most viewers will continue to fill their plates with a combination of other programming from conventional networks, specialty stations, live sports and other options.

Still, there’s no doubt that Netflix has revolutionized many people’s television viewing habits – just as cable and satellite TV did decades ago, as VCRs (remember those?) did in the 1980s, and as the original specialty stations (including channels like Food Network and HGTV) have done over the last 20 years.

But Netflix hasn’t stopped there. No longer just a re-broadcaster of other networks’ movies and television shows, these feisty folks are now producing their own original programming, including the most recent season of Arrested Development, along with top-notch series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.

Not only are they creating some amazing, groundbreaking programs, they’re also doing something unprecedented in the history of television. They’re making entire seasons of new programs available instantly, releasing what used to take months to accumulate all in one moment.

That’s right. You can watch a whole season of these programs continuously. Depending on how much abuse your retinas or your bladders can take, you could be done with an entire season of your favourite new program in less than half-a-day. They call it “binge watching” and it’s not hard to see why.

If you think traditional networks are freaking out about this, you’re right. And they’re not the only ones. The same specialty networks that seemed so hip a few years ago are now wondering how they’re ever going to top this. Why pay for a specialty station to watch a program over several months when Netflix can deliver great shows you can be finished with in just a few hours?

It’s the perfect fit for a society where we don’t like waiting for anything and impatience rules.

Life moves pretty fast. And it won’t be slowing down anytime soon. There’s not much call anymore for waiting or anticipating or dreaming about what’s around the next corner. That next corner is already in the rear-view mirror. Sorry you missed it.

Is that a good thing – or a bad one? Heck if I know. When it comes to television, I’m a graduate from the Luddite School of Idiot Box Viewing. For several years, I lived in a northern town with one measly television station, so my viewing choices were limited to “On” and “Off.” At the time, no one could have even dreamed what the future might hold. Or probably would have cared. But, like everything else in life, things evolve and we adapt. Or we don’t.

Move forward, stand still, live in the past. It’s your choice. Hand me that remote.

 

Guilty Pleasures

We all have them. Chocolate. Soap operas. Romance novels. Ice cream. Trashy reality television shows. Tabloid newspapers. They’re called “guilty pleasures.” Mostly innocuous stuff but, perhaps, not the types of things you’ll readily mention to strangers or casual acquaintances.

One of my personal favourites is detective novels. I used to read a lot of the “classics” like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man series with Nick & Nora Charles) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye).

Over the years, I began enjoying many of the later authors in the genre, which include John D. MacDonald, Robert P. Parker and more recent practitioners such as Robert Crais and Louise Penny, among many others.

But, in my opinion, there’s one particular novelist and one specific “detective” who stand above the rest. The author’s name is Lawrence Block, a Buffalo, New York born writer who’s lived much of his 76 years in New York City and sets many of his novels there.

Block has written several different series, a humourous one about a gentleman burglar named Bernie Rhodenbarr and a more recent one about a hit man called simply “Keller.”

All of the series are entertaining in one way or another, but if Block did nothing else but create one particular character, that would have been fine with me. His name is Matthew Scudder. To say he’s “flawed” would only begin to poke at Scudder’s many issues.

When the series started back in 1976 – nearly 40 years ago – he was an alcoholic, ex-NYPD detective who’d left his wife and two boys. He admits to taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes, covering up crimes and much more during his time on the force. He makes the decision to quit the NYPD after accidentally killing a young girl when he was off-duty and had been drinking.

The first few novels in the series are good but, other than Scudder’s many less-than-savoury habits, aren’t particularly memorable. Ironically, the whole enterprise really takes off when the character, who now gets by as an unlicensed “detective” who helps out friends for money and lives in a seedy Hell’s Kitchen hotel, wises up and quits boozing, joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

The story goes that, at this point, Block had decided to abandon the series because he didn’t think there was any future in the story of a dry alcoholic. It goes to show that sometimes we’re not the best judges of our own talents. Far from being over, Scudder’s story had really just begun to be told.

Much of the next few novels deals with the reformed drunk’s agonizing attempts to remain sober. You’d think that learning about someone’s efforts to find his next AA meeting or trying to overcome the pull of alcohol everywhere he goes would be pretty dull stuff. On the contrary.   Instead, Block creates one of the most multi-layered, morally-conflicted humans you’re likely to encounter in fiction.

On top of that, he’s some kind of detective. Dogged. Determined. Brilliantly analytical. Able to take the tiniest most insubstantial thread and keep pulling on it with his mind until a twisted, unsolvable case is put to bed. As one of his former coworkers on the police force described him, he’s like a dog with a bone.

But, having created a great character is only part of Lawrence Block’s attraction. He also happens to be a spectacular wordsmith. And he does it with seeming effortlessness, a true sign, in my mind, of a very talented writer.

Much like Chandler or Parker in their prime, his writing is spare, his imagery always on the money. As the New York Times Book Review put it: “Bulls-eye dialogue and laser-image description,” calling his characters “almost real enough to touch.”

I rarely re-read books. Without exaggeration, I can count on one hand the number I’ve read more than once. But, that hand does not include Block. I have read the entire Scudder series, many of them more than once.

And a few years back, I decided to make it my mission to purchase each of the books in order, one or two a year, and take a run at the entire 17-volume series, just to experience the pure joy of the character that Block created so many years ago.

What a pleasure that’s been. I’m only seven books into my journey of rediscovery and I’m loving every minute. I could probably knock off each one in an evening but, instead, I’ll usually take at least a week to pore over every page, savouring the dialogue, reintroducing myself to Scudder and all his acquaintances, and learning to love this amazing, twisted, tormented character all over again.

I’ve never written to an author before, but I’ve often considered dropping Block a note, just to thank him for creating these mini-masterpieces. Maybe he’d appreciate it, as he’s hardly a household name and has never become anything close to being wealthy for his efforts. Or maybe he’s a snooty snob who would be too good to care what others think of him.

I’ll never find out because I never want to spoil the enchantment and the mystery behind both Block and his wondrous creation. Like discovering the secret behind a magic trick or the recipe for a perfect dish, sometimes, it’s just better not knowing.

Approaching the age of 80, it’s hard to know how many years Block still has with us or how many more Scudder novels he has in him. The last one came out in 2011 and he’s only written three in the past 13 years, so the end of the line could be near. That would be heartbreaking news for a devoted fan like me, but all good things end someday.

In the meantime, I intend to savour every moment of this guilty pleasure, taking snack-size pieces of Block’s delectable goodies whenever I hunger for the unmistakable taste of Scudder.             Whatever your guilty pleasure, I hope you get to enjoy it for many years to come, as well. Life’s too serious not to take a few moments every once in awhile just to enjoy it. Grab a piece and take a giant bite whenever you can. Delicious!

 

 

 

 

Have A Great Weekend!

You don’t have to go back too many years to remember when the majority of workers had weekends off. Search your memory banks and you can probably recall sitting on the back deck with your feet up, enjoying a refreshing beverage, putting the work week behind you and letting your mind drift off to Never Never Land. Zzzzzz.

Where was I? Oh, right – weekends. Well, unless you’re one of the few fortunate souls who still works Monday to Friday from 9-5, those days are long past. In addition to the normal busy parts of life (family functions, charitable endeavours, kids’ sports activities, etc.), most of the world is now burdened with a variety of tethers that tie them to their jobs 24/7, even if they’re far away from their physical workplaces.

In the “old days,” they used to say certain types of work required people to be “on-call.” What an antiquated term that seems today. Now we’re all on-call, around the clock, wherever we are, even if we’re, technically, on vacation.

Some of that may be a requirement of our employment, but much of it is self-inflicted. It’s our choice to carry our smartphones or other technological umbilical cords with us at all times, glancing at them like Pavlovian dogs every time we’re summoned, whoever is beckoning us. We can’t seem to turn them off – and most of us wouldn’t be inclined to do so whether or not we had the choice.

It’s bad enough that most of the non-stop interruptions that keep us from doing something useful with our lives involve Facebook updates (“I just bought a hat!”), tweets (#cleaningthesink), selfies (me and a lint ball), YouTube videos (Cat licks paw!!!), or whatever.

It really starts to get sad, though, when all roads inevitably lead back to our jobs: checking our emails, making notes to ourselves, calling the office, dealing with customer concerns and, of course, actually working from home for 10, 20, 30 or more additional hours a week.

At some point, we all need to shut it down and give our weary brains a much-needed snooze. In a Scientific American article from last fall entitled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, author Ferris Jabr says, “Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy.”

Instead, we should be searching for ways to disengage ourselves from work, rather than trying to perpetually add more to our overflowing plates. Quoting an essay from The New York Times by essayist Tim Kreider, Jabr says: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

How very true. Jabr adds, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

As well, just what are we doing with all that additional “work time?” Not much of any true value, to be honest. Quoting a 2010 study of 1,700 white collar workers from the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia, Jabr says, “On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs.”

It’s easy to offer advice on how to consolidate or eliminate much of our “busywork” but, in the long-term, how effective will those efforts be if we don’t make our own commitment to downsizing our lives, resisting the temptation to peek at our electronic devices whenever they call out to us, choosing not to spend that extra hour or ten at our workplaces, deciding not to sacrifice our nights and weekends to “catch up” on our mountain of neglected employment spewage and, generally, making a choice to put leisure time ahead of our jobs.

Or maybe all of that is some unrealistic, out-of-date fantasy. Have we come so far in our evolution that we’re ready to give up all the things we’ve always cherished and that have provided us with an antidote to our jobs?

If so, perhaps it’s time we rewrote that 1981 Loverboy classic, Working for the Weekend. In today’s frenzied world, maybe it’s time to come up with some lyrics that truly reflect where we’re at today. In that case, we’ll just retitle the song, Working on the Weekend and be done with it.

Breaking The Code

It’s often said that baseball is a metaphor for life. Each spring, as the major league season gets set to begin, I like to read one baseball-related book to set the mood for the next 162 games. And, inevitably, I end up learning a little bit more about baseball – and a whole lot more about life.

This year on the bookshelf, it was the third effort by Dirk Hayhurst, a journeyman pitcher who had a couple of cups of coffee with three major league teams a few years back, but is probably better known for his intelligent, witty writing and his television appearances on Rogers Sportsnet and TBS during last year’s playoffs.

Hayhurst’s books are filled with small moments of triumph surrounded by plenty of self-doubt, deprecation and failure. His first book, The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, talked about his long career in the minor leagues, trying and hoping for a break that would take him from a life of riding buses and pinching pennies to the big-paying career of a major leaguer. This was a side of baseball rarely written about, which made it refreshing. It also made Hayhurst somewhat of a pariah for breaking an unwritten baseball code: what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.

In his second effort, Out Of My League: A Rookie’s Survival in the Bigs, Hayhurst finally achieves his dream of playing regularly in the major leagues. Along the way, he meets and marries the woman of his dreams and buys his first house. Still, Hayhurst is hounded by the demons of his own horribly dysfunctional family and finds many bumps in the road.

Which brings us to Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, Hayhurst’s latest effort. The “code” plays a bigger part in this chapter of Hayhurst’s life. The book picks up after his successful season with the Jays when he injures himself in the off-season and spends the better part of the year undergoing surgery, rehabbing and dealing with severe depression.

Hayhurst ends up talking with a sports psychologist via phone for a good portion of this period, trying to sort out why he can’t be happy, even when good things happen to him. He talks often about the nature of the code and how he’s alienated his teammates by breaking one of baseball’s unwritten laws. He worries constantly about how he is perceived by others and struggles with trying to hold himself back and act the way he’s expected to around veteran players, coaches, trainers and his wife.

The psychologist listens patiently for several sessions of Hayhurst’s moaning and whining, leading the player along and pretending to be on his side. Finally, he broadsides Dirk, telling him how incredibly selfish and self-centred he is. Hayhurst is so shocked, he actually makes the doctor repeat himself and asks, “Is this a joke?”

To answer the question, the psychologist explains: “You keep using this language, ‘everyone.’ ‘Everyone hates me. Everyone likes me. They all think I’m nuts.’ It’s a pretty selfish way to think, wouldn’t you say? Believing that at any given time every person you come into contact with hates or likes you, or even cares about you at all?”

Hayhurst tries to reason with the psychologist, talking about how a few of the players have openly criticized him for breaking the code. “I know all about expectations and codes and unwritten rules,” says the doctor. “Most players spend their entire careers subscribing to one form of them or another. Most people, for that matter. You think baseball players are unique in code making?”

Hayhurst says he does. “Please,” the psychologist says. “You’re not as special as you think. People everywhere worry about how the group will see them if they break those codes. Codes they never even had a hand in making but take on as all-encompassing. We all do. And we all project those assumed consequences of breaking those codes onto ourselves or others, to the point that we act on them irrationally.”

It’s at this moment that the door to Hayhurst’s real problems is finally opened wide. The issue is not about others, it’s about Hayhurst himself. Like all of us, to some degree, he’s concerned about what others think about him, rather than trying to live his own life and be true to himself. He can be what he wants to be, but he also has to deal with the consequences when he does so. If he feels there’s a reason for breaking the code and doing what he believes in, he needs to fight for that right.

During this time, Hayhurst also befriends a brilliant physical therapist who helps him battle through his pitching injuries and insecurities while the psychologist continues to work on his mental challenges. With their help and, as the book’s subtitle notes, he’s able to restitch his life. As his psychologist says, “I’m not going to fix you, Dirk, because you’re not broken. I’m just going to help you learn about who you are, underneath the seams.”

There you have it. A metaphor for life masquerading as a book about baseball. It proves that you never know where you’re going to find wisdom or learn more about your own place on this planet. In this case, Hayhurst has provided both. And hit a home run while doing it. How many pitchers can say that?

 

School’s Out

“No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” the great philosopher Alice Cooper once wrote. A recent experience where I watched a large family in a restaurant spend the majority of their meal cruising their smartphones led me to wonder how students in the digital age are managing to learn in a traditional school environment – when so much of their lives revolve around their electronic devices.

With the question of new teaching methods picking at my brain, I started searching for answers on the Internet. And, as so often happens, I ended up finding out much more than I ever wanted to know in the first place.

In the case of my search for teaching trends in the digital age, I stumbled upon a professor from the UK named Steve Wheeler. The educator recently wrote a three-piece series that commented on yet another article about three new emerging teaching trends. That article was written by Daniel S. Christian, an information technology instructor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now you see what I mean about already discovering more than I really wanted to know.

According to his original thesis, Christian said he believes that new teaching methods are being driven directly by the upsurge in online activity and identifies three key changes to support his argument.

The first trend is “a move to opening up learning, making it more accessible and flexible.” Christian says, “The classroom is no longer the unique centre of learning, based on information delivery through a lecture.”

Wheeler comments on Christian’s first trend by saying that this has been happening for at least the last decade. Classroom centred learning may be cost effective in terms of having a teacher deliver lessons in front of the class, allowing the students to reflect on what they might have learned and then testing them afterwards. But, is it still effective? With new technology, Wheeler says, learning can now take place anywhere and, more importantly, at the pace of each individual learner.

Of course, by taking teaching out of the classroom, we’re also introducing a whole series of other issues. As Wheeler asks, “Will there be a divide between learning that continues to rely on traditional learning spaces, compared to learning that takes place largely outside the walls of the traditional classroom? Moreover, if there is such a divide, will it be delineated by its cost effectiveness, its conceptual differences, or its pedagogical impact?”

Christian’s second trend involves “an increased sharing of power between the professor and the learner.” He continues: “This is manifest as a changing professorial role, towards more support and negotiation over content and methods, and a focus on developing and supporting learner autonomy.

“On the student side, this can mean an emphasis on learners supporting each other through new social media, peer assessment, discussion groups, even online study groups but with guidance, support and feedback from content experts.”

Wheeler wonders if teachers will be willing to voluntarily relinquish their position as the sole instructors in the classroom and become “co-learners.” He believes, “Some would feel justified in jealously protecting their positions as acknowledged experts and resist any calls to take a sideways step and let their students lead. Knowledge is power, and holding that position of power can be seductive.”

On the flip side, will students be willing to let their teachers into their personal digital world? “They are intimately familiar with the functionality of their devices, knowing how to use them to connect to, create and organize content. They are adept at connecting to their friends and peers too, but will they be willing to power share with their professors, take on greater autonomy and assume more responsibility to direct their own learning in the future?” wonders Wheeler.

Christian’s final changing trend in teaching centres around “an increased use of technology not only to deliver teaching, but also to support and assist students and to provide new forms of student assessment.”

Wheeler says this issue may be the stickiest of all, because learning and assessment are inseparable in education. Therefore, how do you reconcile digital learning methods with traditional grading systems? Wheelers reasons, “If students are relying increasingly on digital technology to connect them with content, peers and tutors, and to facilitate new, distributed forms of learning, then we should endeavour to assess the learning they achieve in a relevant manner.”

In Wheeler’s own classrooms, he often frees students from the confines of paper-based essays and allows them to submit videos, blogs and other forms of assignments. But how do you grade one form against another? In Wheeler’s case, he tries to determine equivalencies in effort, the sequencing of content and how well his students use the different capabilities of each technology. That’s a long, long way from having students take multiple-choice exams – and one that seems ripe for disagreements.

Whether we agree with Wheeler’s interpretation of Christian’s new trends or not, there can’t be any doubt that the way we teach our children is undergoing an extraordinary change because of the light-speed advancements happening in digital technology.

To return to Alice Cooper’s philosophical treatise on education: “Well, we got no choice/All the girls and boys/Makin’ all that noise/’Cause they found new toys.” New toys, for sure. And we’d better start thinking of more productive ways to make use of those toys if we intend to keep pace with the way we educate our children. If not, Mr. Cooper’s prediction that “School’s out forever” will almost certainly become increasingly true.

 

Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.

 

 

Read All About It

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the CBC. To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I turned on either CBC Television or Radio. How about you? I imagine if you enjoy hockey or The National or some of CBC’s radio programs, you can count yourself as a supporter. Certainly, I’m not an advocate of disbanding either service, as it’s always nice to know they’re there if you ever need or want them.

On the other hand, I receive several daily news summaries from CBC in my email, which help give me their perspective on what’s going on in the news, arts, etc. So, it’s not like I’ve shut the Corporation out of my life entirely.

There’s one initiative they’re involved with that does excite me, however. It’s called Canada Reads and it’s been operating on CBC Radio since 2001. Each year, the program covers a different theme and involves narrowing down a list of Canadian books that listeners and a panel choose as best representing that theme.

For Canada Reads 2014, they’re looking for the one novel that could change the nation or, perhaps, even the world. A long list of 40 books chosen by Canadians was revealed last October 24th. People voted to narrow that number down to a Top 10.

That list was given to the 2014 panelists, who have the task of defending their choice during a series of debates that air on CBC Radio and CBC-TV from March 3rd to the 6th. They’ll also be streamed online. One at a time, the panelists will narrow the list down until only the winner remains.

In the past, I’ve only glanced briefly at the nominees. However, this year I seem to have a little more invested. That’s probably because I had already read two of the five novels and was actually reading a third at the exact moment when the list was released. Since then, I’ve completed a fourth.

So, who are these mysterious nominees?

In alphabetical order by author, the first is The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood, who is by far the most famous and recognizable name on the list and generally regarded as Canada’s finest novelist. This is the only one of the five books I haven’t read, as it’s in a genre, science fiction, that I have a lot of trouble getting my head around. Atwood’s book about a future world that emerges following a manmade pandemic will be defended by Stephen Lewis, a longtime leader of Ontario’s NDP, but now known as one of Canada’s most prominent philanthropists.

The second nominee, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, is also the most recent, having been released last September. Boyden is probably my favourite current Canadian novelist and this is an interesting and controversial book set during the early history of Canada and involving the crossed paths of three characters: a Jesuit missionary, a Huron elder and a young Iroquois girl. It’s been attacked by segments of the religious community, the native community and just about everyone else, so you know what you’re getting into. And there’s a lot of violence, so be forewarned. It will be defended by Wab Kinew, a journalist, aboriginal activist and hip-hop artist.

Next on the list is Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. It’s not often I remember exactly where I was when I read a book but, in this case, I recall being on vacation in the sunny south and absolutely loving this novel, which tells the story of young, black German jazz musician’s disappearance during World War II. It’s written in a “jazz language,” if that makes sense and is a wonderful piece of literature that deservedly won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Two-time Olympic gold medal winning runner Donovan Bailey will defend the book.

It’s been a long time since I read Cockroach by Rawi Hage, but it’s managed to stick with me pretty well because of its dark, unsettling nature. It captures the life of a recent immigrant during one bitterly cold month in Montreal. The lead character, who imagines himself a cockroach, lives on the edge of society as a petty criminal eking out a marginalized existence. While searching out some summaries of the book, I noticed it was described as a black comedy for teens and young adults, but I’m not sure it’s a book that youngsters would necessarily be drawn to. In any case, it will be defended by comic, actor and writer Samantha Bee, who’s been a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for more than a decade.

Finally, there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter, which I just finished reading a couple of weeks ago, so I can offer a very fresh perspective on it. This is a heart-wrenching story of a child who is born hermaphroditic (both boy/girl), but raised as a boy, with disturbing and sad results. It’s a book that has moments of both extreme tenderness and ugly brutality, but one I also think will remain with me forever. Sarah Gadon, a young Canadian actress who’s starting to make a big name for herself in Hollywood (with five movies set to come out in 2014), will champion Annabel.

It will be interesting to see how each of the celebrities defends the book they’ve chosen. It’s one thing to enjoy a novel, but to debate how that book might change Canada or the world is something entirely different. Excluding Atwood’s book, which I haven’t read, I’d lean towards either Boyden’s or Winter’s, mainly because the issues of native rights and sexual equality will continue to play huge roles in our country’s future.

In any case, the choice in this battle of the books will be an interesting one, as each of the novels speaks in an entirely different voice and, without a doubt, definitely has the potential to change Canada. Read on!

 

Warm Thoughts In The Dead Of Winter

It’s hard to find much good to say about last week’s extreme frigidity. Offhand, the only thing that lightens my mood when it’s -25 C out is the reappearance of the anti-climate change Luddites. I’m talking about the diehard few who cling to the completely debunked idea that global temperatures aren’t continuing to climb at an alarming rate.

Nothing brings these folks out of hiding like a record-setting cold snap. Refrains of “Whatever happened to your global warming?” were all the rage last week, rising meteorically in equal proportion to the plummeting temperatures outside.

I appreciate the fact that many of these people are just joking. It’s their winter equivalent of “Hot enough for you?” in the dog days of summer – and, just like that popular slogan, it gets tired mighty fast.

Like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, these “denialists” claim glaciers aren’t melting, snow cover isn’t disappearing, spring isn’t coming earlier, humidity isn’t rising, temperatures over lands and oceans aren’t increasing, sea levels aren’t rising, sea ice and ice sheets aren’t disappearing, oceans aren’t warming, species aren’t migrating and tree-lines aren’t moving poleward and upward.

Thankfully, the number of misinformed individuals continues to decline – and worldwide acceptance of manmade climate change continues to grow. Apparently, all it took was a series of epic extreme weather incidents to make a large chunk of the few remaining naysayers change their opinions.

That’s especially true with Americans, a nation that often seems to thrive on dismissing everything that’s happening around them. After a series of cataclysmic events, including Hurricane Katrina (over 1,800 dead, $81 billion in damage, according to Wikipedia), Hurricane Sandy (nearly 300 dead, $68 billion in damage and massive flooding), drought (the current one is called the largest natural disaster in American history) and record-setting heat waves, the number of climate change deniers in that country may soon drop to less than 10%. Hallelujah.

It’s always nice to see Americans catching up to the rest of the world, considering the untold destruction and loss of human life that’s already occurred in other parts of the planet, directly or indirectly caused by climate change.

Personally, I knew the tide was turning when one of the last bastions of global warming denial crumbled last year. In my case, I’d be talking about my 86-year old father who I always assumed would drown underneath a melting polar ice cap while holding a placard that said, “Climate Change Is A Hoax.” I nearly fell off my soapbox when he informed me that, “There might be something to this global warming after all.” Miracles never cease.

Like many popular hoaxes, the anti-climate change folks still cling to the junk science that exists on the Internet, although the remaining websites that promote this crud are starting to look like projects some college pranksters might have designed when they were both extremely wasted – and terminally bored.

It was priceless to see right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh hit the crackpot jackpot last week after he claimed scientists had made up the idea of a “polar vortex” to explain the frigid temperatures. In Limbaugh’s words, “They’re relying on their total dominance of the media to lie to you each and every day about climate change and global warming.”

When the anti-climate change contingent is forced to rely on someone like Limbaugh to make its case, you know they’re in trouble. This is the same clown who regularly rants against women, African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, any religion except Christianity, homosexuals, immigrants and anyone who’s not a member of the Republican Party. This is someone you want on your side? Why not hire Krusty the Clown? At least that clown’s got a sense of humour.

Thankfully for Limbaugh, he probably won’t be around in 20 years or so when the world starts to get really nasty. As if it isn’t already insufferable enough in many tropical countries where temperatures are making life nearly unlivable for much of the year, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. According to a study in the respected journal Nature, tropical countries like Indonesia will start experiencing regular, unprecedented heat waves just five years from now.

An article in USA Today from last October 10th, says these heat waves will start to affect much of the U.S. just 20 years later and will create a tipping point after which the temperatures will rise every year. The figures will break every record set in the last 150 years if climate conditions continue to change at their current pace. The study’s lead author says, “Whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.” Scary stuff.

It’s fun to make jokes about global warming – but man-made climate change will soon be anything except a laughing matter. Living in Canada, we may end up being insulated from some of the most radical changes for a few extra years. Right now, it’s rather enjoyable to have spring arrive earlier, winters pass faster, less snowfall and rainfall, and some of the other benefits we’re becoming accustomed to.

But, ask people in tropical countries what their lives are like today compared to what they grew up with – or talk to Americans in the drought-stricken regions – and you’ll gain a different appreciation for why climate change is something none of us should be looking forward to.

“Hot enough for you?” will no longer be a tired, summer catchphrase. Instead, it will be an inescapable reality. As the number of those opposed to the idea of manmade climate change dwindles and the temperatures skyrocket, it will be more than hot enough for everyone. And clowns like Rush Limbaugh will, no doubt, find someone else to blame for it.

 

Afghanistan Addition

In writing a tribute seven days ago to those who have fought for this country and were honoured on Remembrance Day earlier this week, I referred only in passing to the forces who have served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions following the Korean War. In fact, I think most Canadians often consider only the two World Wars and the Korean conflict in their remembrances. But, the truth is, tens of thousands of troops have been involved in skirmishes around the globe during the past half-century and often go unrecognized.

One of the most notable instances has been in Afghanistan, where nearly 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have served since first arriving in 2001. This September, withdrawal of the remaining 900 special personnel began and, by March of next year, only a few will remain. Support for the troops was strong in the middle of last decade, but gradually waned until Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated Canadians had lost their appetite for the war and declared in May 2011, “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”

Some people beg to differ. Or, at the very least, they would say that Afghanistan is still a definite threat to itself and its people, if not the world. In a fascinating article in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung recounts the story of her first return to Afghanistan since she was kidnapped five years ago, held prisoner in a hole for 28 days, and tortured repeatedly.

Fung disputes two popular notions most Canadians hold: that there are few tangible results from our soldiers’ efforts in Afghanistan and that the country is ready to govern itself, hold off the Taliban insurgents and continue the reforms that have begun.

The journalist recounts some truly inspiring statistics in making her case that Canada’s efforts have made a huge difference in the country. One example is in education. “In 2001, 700,000 students were enrolled in school, almost none of them girls. Today more than 10 million children go to school, and 40 percent in the primary grades are girls. Since 2002, more than 4,500 new school buildings have been constructed, and the number of teachers has increased eightfold, to nearly 200,000. In addition, more than a quarter of a million women have attended literacy classes,” writes Fung.

She also has high praise for the Canadian forces who have served in the country – along with deep sadness for the sacrifices they’ve made: “The mission transformed the military into a modern fighting force, but also left us with a long roll call of dead, wounded and battle scarred. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and another 3,000 are estimated to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Despite those grim numbers, Fung talks about the positives for the Canadian forces, saying, “The more than decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the longest in Canada’s history, has given our military a much-needed morale boost, rehabilitating its image after the Somalia scandal in the 1990s. The forces entered Afghanistan with a sense of both purpose and trepidation, a volunteer army from a small country, no longer peacekeepers but warriors, with new equipment, new recruits and a renewed sense of pride.”

But, as far as the job being done, Fung has her doubts. She reports that nearly three million Afghans live as refugees in neighbouring countries with almost half a million displaced internally. Countrymen fear the worst as foreign powers abandon the country. One young mother told Fung, “Leaving a war at this stage means you will give al Qaeda the chance to grow again. When the world talks about humanitarian assistance, or the humanitarian part of the fight, this is not done yet.”

The woman does not believe her government is capable of running the country with its poor record so far of corruption and lack of transparency. She is not alone. Fung feels the current balancing act, which includes a “peace” where upwards of 100 Afghan soldiers are killed every week, is extremely fragile – and she doesn’t believe they can go it alone. “Yes, Afghans must learn to stand on their own, take care of their country, and protect their rights. They understand that, and they want it more than anything; but to protect the gains that have been made, sustained investment from the rest of the world is needed, and will be for a long time. There is fear here, but also optimism,” she says.

As the remaining Canadian Forces personnel prepare to exit the country, some are, undoubtedly, ready to come home, having done their job to the best of their ability. However, for other personnel – along with the many civilians who remain in Afghanistan – there’s a sense the job is incomplete, that the projects and missions they began as far back as 2001 still need to be finished.

In either case, those who served in Afghanistan deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for what they have accomplished in a country nearly 11,000 km away. They have performed bravely and professionally and with distinction. And they deserve our remembrance wholeheartedly.