Packing It In

Life has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Technologically, we’ve gone from hard-wired telephones and physical communication modes to an unlimited universe of advanced electronic, mobile, and Internet devices. Despite all those technological changes in our lives, perhaps our societal attitudes have evolved even more.

Think of how dramatically our thoughts about gay rights, abortion, drinking and driving, privacy, climate change, public safety and other big ticket issues have been altered over that time.

If you’ve ever watched the television show Mad Men before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Set in the early 1960s, almost every scene in the program involves someone either a) drinking alcohol b) cheating on their spouses or c) smoking in a venue where it would be prohibited today.

What brought the last point to mind this week was a photo I noticed of a diplomat sitting in the White House with then-President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Tucked in the very corner of the photo, sitting inconspicuously on a coffee table, is a fancy glass case loaded with cigarettes.

To anyone born in the last 20-30 years, the thought of being able to smoke in the White House, let alone an airplane, movie theatre, doctors’ office, hospital or restaurant, is something totally foreign.

Today, it is not just illegal, it’s also socially unacceptable in many circles. Ostensibly, JFK was a cigar smoker in private and his wife Jackie was a heavy cigarette smoker but, even in 1962, this was not something generally acknowledged in public. However, that certainly didn’t stop the rest of North Americans puffing away wherever they pleased.

According to a 2013 University of Waterloo report on smoking, in 1965, over 62% of Canadian men were smokers and about 50% of all adults in this country smoked, the all-time peak in tobacco usage. Today, just 16% of Canadians are regular smokers and the number continues to fall every single year.

That’s a phenomenal change in less than half a century. Pressure by The Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and a variety of other public and private organizations has led to more and more restrictions on where people can smoke and what age you can buy cigarettes, along with packaging changes and warning notices, plus a whole bunch of other deterrents.

Health concerns have become better known. Workplaces have banned smoking. Governments have systematically bumped up “sin” taxes. The list of hindrances has grown to the point where smokers are not just a tiny minority, they’re ostracized for taking part in an activity that, in addition to being perfectly legal, continues to be a massive source of revenue for government, accounting for over $7 billion in tax revenue annually.

Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a cigarette in public, partly because they know their political careers would likely be dead, too. In July 1984, I was working in the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill and found myself at a picnic one Sunday afternoon, chowing down next to Brian Mulroney, who would become Canada’s Prime Minister just two months later. Seeing the writing on the wall, he told me how he’d quit smoking a short time before that, as he realized how difficult being a smoker would be while holding the highest office in the country.

Barack Obama made a similar decision in February 2011 after 30 years of being addicted to the weed. And I’m sure thousands of other politicians made the same commitment, partly for their health, but mostly because it’s become a habit the majority of people not only don’t participate in, but actually frown upon, especially when it comes to the people they elect.

There’s an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of The Walrus by longtime magazine writer Lynn Cunningham about her lifelong attempt to quit smoking, part of which details her spending time in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Centre.

After 50 years and numerous attempts to rid herself of the habit, nicotine had become a vice she knew she couldn’t overcome without serious help. Serious enough to travel to Rochester, Minnesota and pay $5,500 U.S. for the Mayo’s eight-day cessation program.

Cunningham talks about the lack of residential treatment options for those who simply cannot quit on their own – and the similar lack of public sympathy for cigarette addicts. Unlike other addictions for which there are numerous support groups available, she says reformed smokers rarely have such avenues.

She comments on the fact that many recovering addicts, especially alcoholics, are often chain smokers who don’t even consider smoking an addiction.

And she even talks about how many popular movies have been made about the struggles of quitting alcohol or drugs – when nobody would even think of making a blockbuster about someone who quit smoking.

“Popular culture basically doesn’t acknowledge smoking as a dangerous addiction, nor does it lend it the patina of romantic dissolution that might garner users more sympathy – or better treatment options,” writes Cunningham.

Last week, the Canadian Cancer Society said it is taking the “next logical step” by urging Health Canada to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, according to a Canadian Press article.

It’s already the law in Australia, where cigarettes have been packaged in plain olive brown wrapping since late December 2012 and cigarette use has fallen sharply since.

The CP story says similar plans are in the works in Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France. “Plain packaging is an important and logical next step for Canada to curb tobacco marketing, reduce smoking and save lives,” says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Cancer Society.

As more and more pressure is inflicted on Canada’s remaining smokers to quit the killer weed, it’s amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) was formed in 1974, its founders had very modest goals. They hoped to convince a few people that smoking was bad for their health and, in doing so, make them consider the idea of quitting.

As Canada gets closer and closer to being a non-smoking society, the NSRA must look back and marvel at how boldly life has changed in their 40 years of existence. It’s just one example of the ways our lives in this country have evolved, but it’s a profound one.

The Infinite Chain of Causality

Not to get all philosophical on you, but do you ever ponder much about the concept of cause and effect? “Zzzzzz,” you’re thinking to yourself. What’s this idiot on about this week? Bear with me for a moment and I’ll see if I’m able to connect the dots for you.

Several weeks ago, a longtime friend and I were sitting outside the Rogers Centre in Toronto, waiting to watch my beloved Blue Jays get hammered one more time before the players headed off for another long winter of golf. As we munched on our traditional pre-game street meat treat, somehow we got onto the topic of our friendship, which dates back to a particularly random introduction over 30 years ago.

The two of us were both attending an interview session for a popular college program in Kitchener-Waterloo, hoping to be two of just 25 applicants selected from a group of several hundred hopefuls, which, in turn, had already been narrowed down from multiple hundreds more.

Just prior to the interview, I’d realized that, after flying more than a thousand miles to be there, I’d left my entire portfolio back at my hotel room, which was far, far across town. I must have had a particularly dejected look on my face because, suddenly, another potential student came up to ask if I was having a problem.

I explained my dilemma and this kindly stranger offered to drive me back to the hotel and retrieve my missing portfolio. Long story short, this Good Samaritan not only got me to my interview on time, but the pair of us ended up in the same program and became lifelong friends.

Take away any tiny thread in that anecdote and the result is that we never get to know each other – and our lives both take off in completely different directions. Cause and effect, my friends.

But, the story hardly ends there. A few years later, while working in Sarnia, a buddy of mine who lived in Kitchener at the time invited me to come spend the weekend celebrating the 40th birthday of a common friend, who just happens to be the above-mentioned Good Samaritan. Not so strange, you’re thinking. Oh, just wait.

The buddy also happens to have a roommate, someone I had formally worked with in Sarnia. On the same precise weekend, the roommate’s girlfriend just happened to invite her own best friend from Sarnia for a visit.

If you’re wondering where this is all leading, let’s jump ahead a bit. The roommate’s girlfriend and I ended up staying at the same house in Kitchener on the same weekend, hit it off, fell in love, got married, had three wonderful children and, somehow, landed back here where, some quarter-century later yours truly is writing this very column that you’re reading at this precise moment.

So, now you’ve heard the effect of a chance meeting way back in 1981 that would have never happened if, somehow, my friend and I hadn’t both been fated to arrive at exactly the same interview 33 years ago.

But, as my friend pointed out the other week at the Rogers Centre, why stop there? Why not consider the circumstances that led us both to be there on that serendipitous day? Why had I decided to apply for this particular course after being out of school for a year and wondering where I wanted to go with my life? Why had my friend decided to go back to school years and years after working in a civil service job? And how many millions of causes and effects had to take place for our paths to intersect precisely when they did?

Think of your own life and how you ended up where you are at this exact moment. Think of all the causes and effects of all the decisions you’ve made in your life – and exactly how they all link together. And when you’re done that, think back to your parents and what led them to create you in the first place. Or the parents of your spouse or your friends.

Why stop there? Why not consider your parents’ parents and their parents and all the generations that came before them? If any of these dozens or thousands or millions of people you’re considering had made even one tiny alteration in their lives, how would the effects have changed the course of their existence and, in turn, your ultimate existence?
Deep stuff, huh?

As my friend and I finished our snacks and proceeded to return our thoughts to the present, it was with an infinitesimally enlarged perspective of what had brought us to this point in our lives. There is a mystical, magical, spiritual chain that links my friend and I together – and every person who has been part of that chain. Our past, our present and our future are inextricably joined in a great continuum built from the millions of causes and millions of effects that have occurred during the roller coasters of our lives – and long before we were born.

I won’t be with my friend when he celebrates his birthday on October 8th. Perhaps we won’t even talk on the phone or exchange e-mails. But, we will be bonded together nonetheless, just as we have been for more than three decades and, reaching back, as we’ve likely been conjoined for many millennia before that in ways we’ll never know. All courtesy of the infinite chain of causality.

It’s All In Your Head

(The following was written and originally published prior to the tragic August 9th shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and is not intended to reference that incident in any way)

Nuts. Psycho. Two sandwiches short of a picnic. What’s your attitude when you hear that someone is suffering from mental illness? The three examples above were among many given in a U.S. police training exercise about dealing with people who may be emotionally disturbed. The officers were asked to come up with pejorative terms for mentally ill people. Although initially uncomfortable, it didn’t take long for them to rhyme off the above examples.

Later in the exercise, the officers were asked for similar adjectives to describe people with cancer. About the worst they could come up with were “sick,” “brave” and “courageous.” Looking at the two lists side-by-side on a blackboard, the officers realized how distorted their viewpoints were about mental illness.

This is just one example of the problems police and other first responders have in trying to deal with those who may have mental disorders. They’re part of an absorbing article called, ‘Stand Down’ by John Lorinc, which appears in the July/August 2014 edition of The Walrus.

One focus of the wide-ranging article concerns the unique approach developed by the Memphis Police Department in dealing with incidents involving emotionally disturbed suspects. In response to a tragic shooting nearly 30 years ago, the MPD created the Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a specially trained group of officers who are dispatched to emergency scenes and given over-reaching powers when a potential incident occurs involving a suspected mentally ill individual.

Lorinc describes the CIT model as “a progressive approach to de-escalate high-tension confrontations, improve police attitudes toward those suffering from mental illness, and divert them from the criminal justice system.”

Since its creation, similar programs have been developed in 2,700 regions in the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as in Vancouver and Hamilton. Almost across the board, there have been vast improvements made in the way police departments deal with such incidents, many of which can be prevented from escalating just by having trained people on-scene who know how to deal with mentally ill people.

With so many departments adopting such programs, one notable exception stands out from the list: Toronto. This is particularly disturbing given the number of high profile shootings in recent years involving Toronto Police Services and mentally ill individuals.

The most notorious happened just over a year ago when teenager Sammy Yatim was shot to death on a Toronto streetcar by Constable James Forcillo, who fired three times at Yatim, paused, then took six more shots at close range. Forcillo has since been charged with second-degree murder in the incident.

According to Lorinc’s article, between seven and 40 percent of people who police come in contact with may have some form of emotional disturbance. And there are often additional factors such as homelessness, addiction or people suffering some kind of emotional crisis.

Lorinc indicates that Toronto police deal with about 19,000 calls per year involving someone who’s emotionally disturbed. That’s less than one percent of all police contacts with residents in Toronto, far from the estimated seven to 40 percent quoted above. Lorinc surmises that, possibly due to inadequate training, Toronto police simply are unable to recognize signs of mental illness when they see them.

Based on numerous examples given in the article, it would certainly seem so. Rather than talking rationally and calmly to emotionally disturbed suspects, many of the noted incidents involve officers screaming and shouting commands at the people, often the worst possible approach.

At the end of July, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair had his contract turned down for renewal by the city’s Police Services Board. According to reports by the CBC, Board chair Alok Mukherjee said it was time for a change and there was a need for renewal.

The CBC said Mukherjee indicated what some of the changes might be when that “renewal” happens: “They will include the way that the police interact with the community; the way officers interact with emotionally disturbed persons and the mentally ill; and the need to transform the police service in a way that ensures it is effective and sustainable in the long term.”

In a not-too-subtle way, Toronto’s Police Services Board has confirmed what Lorinc and many others already believe – that the city’s police force is ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with incidents involving those with emotional disturbances.

Lorinc talks at length about a coroner’s jury in Toronto that held an inquest earlier this year into three police shootings. Its recommendations echo many of those from the Memphis CIT training manual. These include a better knowledge of mental health problems, more training in verbal de-escalation techniques, and an abandonment in certain instances of what’s referred to as the “twenty-one-foot-rule,” where police are often expected to subdue suspects forcibly who are closer than that arbitrary distance and are considered a potential threat.

The rules need to change. According to Lorinc, during the coroner’s inquest, one police officer said about the shooting he was involved in, “It’s textbook, and I wouldn’t change a thing.” But, if that “textbook” is outdated and incomplete, why is it still being used?

Lorinc indicates that in that same shooting, one police officer actually called on his comrades to use some sense of calm. The author wonders why and concludes: “He likely had enough life experience to think beyond the twenty-one-foot rule, and to recognize what was in front of him: a man in crisis, rather than a police killer brandishing a potentially fatal weapon.”

Ironically, a local resident, out for a jog the morning of the incident, saw the confrontation and instantly recognized the situation for what it was: “It’s a cold winter day. The guy is standing there in a hospital gown, with bare legs. My first thought: this guy is in a mental health crisis.”

If an average citizen with no training determined what was happening instantly, why couldn’t a group of ostensibly “trained” police officers? And why did it take all of 72 seconds for them to end the emotionally disturbed patient’s life with their guns?

The bottom line is that we all need to be better educated about mental illness. That education starts with our frontline police officers.

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!

 

 

 

 

How Slow Can You Go?

When you’re out for a typical drive, how fast do you travel? Under the speed limit? At the speed limit? Or over the speed limit? I’d venture to guess that most Ontarians would choose the latter, especially for those who drive on the provincial and 400 series highways.

So, if most of us are already driving over the speed limit, why doesn’t the government recognize that fact and increase the maximums? Crazy talk, you say? Not at all.

According to an editorial in the July 21st edition of Maclean’s magazine, that’s exactly what’s happening in British Columbia. The story explains that the province’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister recently announced a wide range of changes to B.C.’s highways, including raising the speed limit on dozens of them.

Maximums are being bumped up by as much as 20 km/h on certain highways, with some limits jumping to 120 km/h, the highest in Canada. The article notes that the increases have been opposed by several groups, including the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and environmental agencies. Their reasons include everything from safety issues to environmental concerns.

However, according to the article, “In truth, there should be no appreciable impact on safety or the environment. The changes will simply allow people to get where they’re going in a lawful and timely manner.”

Maclean’s says there is plenty of evidence showing that most people’s speed is a reflection of driving conditions and road characteristics, not posted limits. As well, contrary to what you might think, “Raising limits doesn’t produce faster average speeds; it merely makes lawful what is already common behaviour.”

The article goes on to say that it isn’t the speed itself that causes accidents – it’s the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers. “A large gap between drivers’ speeds is most often found in situations with artificially low speed limits and this can lead to dangerous passing attempts, unpredictable behaviour and driver frustration: all of which most certainly cause collisions.”

As proof, the story notes that the last time B.C. raised its speed limits in 1997 serious collisions dropped by 18 percent over the next five years, despite traffic volumes increasing by about one-third during the same period.

In deciding to raise the limits again this year, the B.C. government used a background report that states, “Speed limits should be set so that they include the behaviour of the majority of drivers and provide an appropriate maximum speed.”

The guideline used to determine the new limits is the typical speed travelled by 85% of those using the highway. By that measure, it’s pretty obvious that speed limits in Ontario are completely out of whack.

In fact, transport trucks in this province are mechanically limited to a maximum speed of 110 km/h – ten clicks over the actual speed limit on the 400 series highways. And, unless I’m totally oblivious to everyone around me on the 401 or 402, most of the passenger vehicles are already driving faster than those transports.        So, what is the province accomplishing by keeping the limits artificially low?

The Maclean’s article says the changes in B.C. will allow law enforcers to put their efforts into combatting the truly reckless drivers amongst us and, thereby, making the roads safer for everyone: “The moves should free police to focus their efforts on stopping the 15 percent of drivers who exceed accepted norms and behave in ways that are obviously dangerous to themselves and others: driving drunk, distracted driving, racing, etc.”

British Columbia and Maclean’s magazine are certainly not the only two proponents of an increased speed limit. A website called http://www.stop100.ca advocates increasing maximums to between 120 and 130 km/h on Ontario’s 400 series highways. More than 28,000 people have signed a petition on the website supporting the increase.

The Stop100 site includes editorials from several sources to back up their fight, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post, along with lots of information on various studies that support an increase in speed limits.

The website also notes that 120-130 km/h speed limits exist in more than 60 countries and states worldwide – and that many countries with higher speed limits have lower or similar fatality rates to Ontario.

What are your thoughts? Do you routinely exceed the speed limit, especially on 400 series highways? If so, do you believe you’re guilty of breaking the law and should be punished for doing so – along with the large percentage of other drivers who also typically exceed the maximum? Or do you think it’s time Ontario re-examines a policy that is constantly ignored by most of its drivers? Equally important, how do we drive home that point with our provincial government?

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.

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.