Friday, December 28, 2012

Blair's Apartment

Blair’s Apartment
A Freefall Exercise

In mid-August, as I’ve noted here before, I attended When Words Collide. At the weekend conference I ran into Judy, a flight attendant I had lost touch with. Over supper Judy told me she was involved in something exciting, something good enough to adjust her flight schedule for: On Fridays, at the Alexandra Centre—a converted inner city school—she was participating in a “freefall” writing workshop. I attended, and liked what I saw: Someone brings along a “prompt,” be it a sculpture, a postcard, or words, and we fall into writing real fast without let up, free of the judgmental left brain—don’t go back and edit, just keep going… The writing time is usually about ten minutes.

One day the prompt was the phrase, “You can learn about people by their surroundings” and I instinctively thought of a certain intellectual:

Blair’s apartment was fitting for a very smart literate man. Apartments were better than owning a home, requiring less upkeep, less energy and less time away from reading. In each room was the expected floor to ceiling bookcase, sans bookends, sans sculptures or knickknacks. No kitsch. No room for anything less relevant than books.

In one room was the usual collection of the modern nerd: computer boxes, keyboards, computers, and one facsimile machine, complete with a telephone handset. The handset came in handy for conference calls. Along the walls were stray papers, boxes, and boxes of papers. Throughout the apartment, the pictures on the walls were in character: No canvas, no fancy frames, no expensive prints. A few souvenir gift photographs. Blair was without an aesthetic sense, but not without friends.

He kept clean counters and a full sink. The refrigerator held lots of interesting things. His abode was in the Bohemian cool part of town. Of course.

Sean Crawford
Between trips to old Strathcona, (formerly a separate town, with its own armoury) Edmonton
December 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Recent Anecdotes
Recent Anecdotes
Taking Stock

A good writer is like a good conversationalist: You can’t say everything you know…. But I sure wish I could.

A computer wizard and essayist at Google, “Stevey” Yegge, once said he had way too much stuff to write on. How much? He said it felt like shoving an elephant through a keyhole. Meanwhile, a computer millionaire and essayist, Paul Graham, no doubt with his own elephants, wrote that he uses footnotes to contain digressions. Me too. Even so, I find myself having to withhold some darn fine footnotes.

While I always have space for a few footnotes, I never find space to include anecdotes and explanations. Until today. Having finished another of my website administrator’s “page” of 25 titles, I feel entitled to have a catch-up-on-anecdotes day.

Recent Anecdotes
… Christopher Columbus was once at a big formal dinner of men and women. This was a couple decades after he had discovered the New World. At his table a young man sneered that Christopher hadn’t done anything special: lots of people are crossing the Atlantic these days. Chris didn’t engage him. Instead, he addressed the other diners: “It’s possible to balance your hard boiled egg on one end. Can anyone else do so?” Everyone got interested, they all tried to balance their dinner egg, and all failed—including that young man. All eyes were on Chris as he held his egg upright at the table—and then tapped the end so it crumpled… into a base that would support the egg, balanced.

The young man was still in sneer mode. “Anyone could have balanced their egg, if they knew that trick.”

Chris said calmly “Yes, and anyone could have sailed to the New World, once I showed them how.”    … For (October) Television Appreciation.

… Bertrand Russell was a brilliant man, born into the Victorian Age. A foolish age, as we can read in Jerome K Jerome’s 19th century comic novel Three Men in a Boat. Jerome satirizes how if an unmarried woman gets pregnant then she has no way to repent for her sin, no option but suicide! (Of course, Jerome tells it far better than I can)

As for Russell, in his essays he raged at the foolish beliefs of his peers. He despised society’s belief that to keep young people away from any pre-marital sex, society could simply hide all information about sex until after they were married adults. Hide any statues, hide any oil paintings—hide any art, no matter how classic or priceless, that could reveal what people looked like under their clothes. Withhold inform-ation! Then all the men and women, right up until their marriage, would be innocent and chaste and sexless and celibate. Russell hated how, as these actions failed, society said the answer was to censor even more, try even harder. The theory behind all this madness, of course, was that being heterosexual was an inform-ed choice.

At last, finally, we know that feeling heterosexual is not a choice, but is pre-programmed from birth into the very cells of the body, thanks to “evolution.” We have learned our lesson. Or have we? As Santayana said, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”: Our US cousins—even unto the 21st century—still think feeling homosexual is an informed “choice.”    … For (October) Fools and Their Choices.

… Remember that TV situation comedy, Seinfeld? It made a lot of people happy. After it finally ended, for several seasons afterwards, I kept reading about the “Seinfeld curse”: Back then, none of the actors were able to make it as “the star” of their own series. Really? Stars? They were all nice ensemble actors, but…

And who can forget Lindsey Lohan? She was the star of Mean Girls, a film based on the nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabees. I loved that movie! Meanwhile, the train wreck of Lindsey Lohan’s life just goes on and on. At first, some reporters had wondered “when” or “if” she would make a “come back.” Not now… Really? A come back?

If Lohan would drop her addiction-fueled grandiosity, and be content with only a humble walk-on part, and later a small supporting role, then Lohan could start on the long straight road of abstinent recovery;  … meanwhile, if the Seinfield cast put being actors in supporting roles ahead of being “the” star, then, being already (presumably) rich for life, they could, without the distraction of earning the rent, enjoy the road to mastering their craft.

There is no silly curse: Everyone just needs to embrace being humble.     … For (November) Humble and Iraq.

… No wonder Canada is a land of immigrants: Such an immense land! Five and a half time zones! No one ever drives all across it. When you do drive, and you finally come to a small town, and you’re thirsty for good fellowship, all you need to do is look for the Canadian flag: If it’s not at the city hall then it’s flying at the Royal Canadian Legion: For war veterans. Active in the community, for all sorts of volunteer causes, the Legion is as Canadian as a railroad, grain elevator or an outdoor ice hockey rink. Note: Under the liquor laws, since the Legion is a private club, you have to be invited, or be a member, in order to go inside.

One day a man went into a Legion hall and asked to sign up as a member. He was wearing a typical Canadian lumber jacket. The man at the desk, wearing his proud blue blazer and blue Legion beret, grabbed a form and said, “OK. Were you in the Royal Canadian Air Force?”
“No, not the RCAF.”
“Were you in the navy?”
“Ah, the army then.”
Big exasperation: “Then what were you in?”
Big smile: “I was in the Luftwaffe!”
Yes, they allowed him to join. True story. He was the first. After him, the Legion made it official that axis veterans were welcome.

I came across this story while researching the Legion for a college term paper as part of a class on volunteers and volunteer-run organizations. This was a few years before our winter Olympics, the Games where Calgary surprised the world with our widespread use of volunteers. I’ve written before of how North Americans, from better citizenship, are better at volunteering than Europeans. Calgary folk, as it happens, are especially good. Official observers from France looked on with wonder but were unable to duplicate our great volunteer component for their own Games four years later.

When I presented my paper to my class, as part of my diploma in Therapeutic Recreation, (Leisure Services) I learned something about college students. As I told this anecdote, standing in front where I could see everyone, I was careful to hold back the punch line, careful to make the very last word in the very last sentence be “Luftwaffe.” I watched as half the class contorted in mirth, and the other half remained perfectly still…. I learned people could be smart enough for college yet not have basic WWII vocabulary.   … For (October) Hatred and Canadian Muslims.

Taking Stock
As for my yet again “Taking Stock” of another page of 25 post titles, well, what can I say? After recently being translated again I’ve resorted to spelling “translators” all in caps, as in “TRANSLATORS, please comment so I don’t die of curiosity.” I guess I could have been a little faster to capitalize… As is, about 20 guys in the former “worker’s paradise” of Moldova, interested in my (April) Peace Without Democracy, a piece with references to Marxism, have made no effort to feel “worker’s solidarity” with me: They left me no comments. I suppose this is merely due to human nature, not from formerly being dirty Godless communists.

After all, Buffy fans—2,121 hits and still counting--don’t comment either, which reminds me: When I expanded my (January) Buffy essay into (October) Television Appreciation on this page I didn’t think to add the label (tag) "Buffy" until it had been out for a week. Reason? I forgot. Plainly, the many fans who didn’t comment didn’t make enough of an impression on me, not enough for me to remember to make a label for them.

Going by hit counts for the previous “25-titles” my two most popular posts were both ones where I felt I was a “minority of one.” For this latest page I made an essay where I felt I was most especially a minority of one, because I dared to argue against making Internet links. And to my surprise, for this page, that’s the essay with the most hits by far. That’s heartening—or is it?

I have a reason to doubt: This morning as I lay in bed a memory popped in. One night I was at the Ship and Anchor pub for an evening of garage bands. One band was especially bad, while also being especially enthusiastic and innocent. So the crowd kept nudging each other and winking and shouting “More!” And the band innocently obliged. “More!” I suppose this memory was my subconscious warning me not to take the hit count for (July) No Links is Good Links too seriously. Perhaps robot search engine crawlers are using my essay as a pivot. Beats me. Maybe after another 25 posts I’ll have a clearer view of what my readers like to read.

I suppose the lesson for us all is: If you know what you like, then don’t just click on it: Write a comment, too.

Sean Crawford
Calgary 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Two Imaginary People

Years ago I read an interview with a forensic pathologist who said  he had never gone into a bad crime scene, where he had to clean the blood off the walls and whatnot, in any place where there were a lot of books. It occurs to me that because books give us an escape even though we may be trapped wherever we are, they give us a "time out" space. People who don't have this have to stay in the pressure cooker...
Lois McMaster Bujold in The Vorkosigan Companion (p89 paperback)

“I am not… I am not the damsel in distress. I am not some case. I have to work this. I’ve lived in a cave for five years in a world where they killed my kind like cattle. I am not going to be cut down by some monster flu. I am better than that. But I wonder… how very scared I am.”
Winnifred “Fred” Burkle … while deathly sick.

In my everyday life, you are welcome to share my amusement that sometimes—ahem!—I think about imaginary people, such as Fred. It’s understandable. People have known since the Iliad and the Odyssey, since the days of flickering hearth fires and fairy tales, how empathy and insight, those two great treasures, are found in stories. Just so, in a first season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a nerdy vampire is quietly in a library: Suddenly he’s seized by the Master—as emotion-food! The Master tells his minions something like, “This one reads, this one has feelings.” When the Master wanted to devour emotions, he knew where to go.

They say that when A Christmas Carol was published people were stopping on the street to ask, "Have you read it?" Such is the energy of fictional empathy. Sometimes I feel wonderstruck at how, although of course reading and stage plays are best, and live action on the screen is second best, I have found that even painted stories on a celluloid reel can have a depth of power.  Just so, in “the greatest anti-hunting film ever made:” the movie where Bambi’s mother dies. If you know about anime (Japanese animation) you may know that some of it makes people cry.

Last week I was thinking about an imaginary person with a gold hammer "he got from his old man": Fix-it Felix, Junior. In the animated film Wreck-it Ralph Felix is a nice and friendly fellow; he’s even nice to the destructive Ralph, whom nobody else likes. When Felix travels to Sugarland he is no idle tourist: He takes initiative. Besides helping Ralph, he helps an army lady sergeant look for fearsome cyber-bugs. Such an amusing contrast: He is short, she is tall. The intense sergeant has a scathing wit like Shakespeare, Felix tries hard not to swear. In fact, Felix apologizes if cuss words slip out of his mouth that might hurt others. You have to wonder: Does he even stand a chance of getting the tough sergeant as his girl friend?

I know something about cussing. I’ve experienced people doing harsh jobs, especially manly jobs far away from the fairer sex, while saying obscenities. I suppose folks in a cushy office job, requiring less motivation, will resort to such words less often. I wonder: what would the scientists say about swearing? Aw, no doubt they have more important things to research. One of my fellow writers, George Orwell, who was both a soldier and a colonial policeman, speculated that swear words were somehow impressed upon, and connected to, our nervous system. That sounds right.

Incidentally, page one (or two) of the Canadian army leadership manual advises not swearing at all, recommending you save such words for a desperate time when they might do some good.

If swearing is connected to our nerves, if our swearing is our human default, then what about Felix? Easy: Fix-it Felix is a darn competent handyman who cares about not hurting others; perhaps this caring he got from his old man. Hence Felix makes an effort to rise above his default. Another effort: He calls ladies “Ma’am.” I have empathy for that. My insight stems from the questions: What does this behavior signal? And what does the sergeant think?

Signals are important. In the city a court judge, or a policeman, will look to see if a juvenile delinquent is scruffy, signaling his low self-esteem, low energy and low resistance to temptation. Right now, during our war on terror, extremists are looking for such signs to seek out new young suicide-bombers. Meanwhile soldiers giving “aide to civil power,” fighting against insurgency, will take care to demonstrate high standards of polished dress and deportment, demonstrating to the public their energetic determination.

Felix wants a relationship with the sergeant. In his eyes, she’s “a dynamite gal.” In her eyes, besides his other heroics, Felix has the strength to be polite, even when times get rough. Here is my insight for Felix: his determined politeness is his equivalent of always oiling his weapons and always polishing his boots, even during the storm and stress of a nation under martial law. The classic mistake of untrained troops and barbarians, besides their being slovenly and unpolished, is they think polite speech means weakness. “It ain’t necessarily so.” At the end of a hard day of fighting cyber-bugs we could all use a little politeness. So yes, Felix and the sergeant share a kiss.

Incidentally, my favorite example of politeness-discipline is when General Patton once grabbed a ride with a lieutenant and the lieutenant’s driver. The general took pains to respect the chain of command by quietly giving all his suggestions for making turns to the lieutenant, rather than directly barking orders to the young officer’s driver.

There is one other character I’ve been thinking about lately, on a TV series about Angel, “a vampire with a soul,” seeking to make atonement for his evil soulless past. On Angel there’s a lady named Fred. Everyone likes her. Skinny, plain like “the girl next door” and very intelligent, she also has—alas--mental health issues. It’s understandable. She was once in a hell dimension hiding from demons. She first had to escape enslavement, and then hide for years, knowing that if the demons ever caught her she would surely be their food. Inevitably she became a little unhinged. At last the staff of Angel Investigations find her, and they return her to the world. She too becomes an Angel employee.

Writer-director Joss Whedon has said, in effect, that while Buffy is about growing up, Angel is about having a job and making your way in the world. My little insight from Fred’s story is that if you can function and contribute on the job then people may overlook minor can’t-help-it issues. As someone (I forget who) once said, “We like people for their strengths, we love them for their faults.”

Anyone who reads enough would feel empathy for Fred: The lady who was so brave in the hell dimension must now brave a new world; the lady who once, amid her deep despair, treasured deep hiding places will never again despise any dark sewer; the lady who appreciates her brave heroes who rescued her doesn’t realize she is a beautiful hero too. At the end of a wonderful day, back in the world, she said something that strums my heartstrings.

“This has been the best night ever. First, there’s you taking me for ice cream, then there’s the ice cream, then that monster jumps out of the freezer and you’re all brave and ‘Fred, watch out!’, and then we get to chase it down into the sewers which are just so bleak, oppressive and homey. I—I could build a condo down here.”

Sometimes, I think about Fred.

Sean Crawford
In a 3 by 9 meter cabin
At the city limits at the edge of town
On the howling prairie
December 2012
Note: Feel free to comment: Who do you remember?
Down in the USA, costume festivals are held on sunny bare grass.
Up here, I love to see happy young people among patches of snow in my hometown wearing costumes for Otafest. The happy music the fans dubbed in is from the above mentioned film Wreck-It Ralph, during the film credits.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Favorite Art and the Public

You just never know.

If you are trying to be any sort of artist, of paint, print or song, then you just never know what the public will like. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense.

I remember a young bookstore owner: Greek features, long dark hair, thin, a good lady who loved wine and chocolate with a good romance film or novel. What I found exciting was how her taste for shelving books and things, for young and old, was the same as mine. I found out my childhood favorite The Eagle of the Ninth, in theatres last year as The Eagle, had a sequel. I guess the public, unfortunately, had different tastes, for the store is no more.

One day I was telling her how a manuscript of mine wasn’t doing well. She said, “Don’t give up” after telling me of when she was attending the provincial art college, here in town. One of her pieces had not placed at the college competition. But when she entered it at an outside competition, she won—and even beat out a piece by her instructor! “You just never know,” she said.

I got my start in writing at my university student newspaper, the Gauntlet. Of course this could include attending far away “student university press” regional conferences, for my own knowledge and fun, mostly, but also, in theory, for taking notes and reporting back. As I recall, one of the seminars was on staff morale and retention. We were advised on such simple, yet new-to-us, things as having a coat rack, and a message board with individual names. (Reporters get calls from friends and sources) A few years later, during a discussion, at a Gauntlet staff meeting, on the value of conferences, I mentioned this seminar. People said sweet! They rushed to implement everything I could remember.

But when Tony Sabo looked in the files for my report, it wasn’t there. Why not? Perhaps the staff, or the “regime,” of that year had not only disregarded all my feedback, but had removed my report, too. Or perhaps, after feeling foolish at being so disregarded, and not wanting to cast pearls before swine, I had quietly taken it back. I don’t know. To the advice of “don’t give up” we can add, “Keep a long perspective”: The public can change.

I’m still chuckling at a sweet lady cursing at me over the telephone. I had lent her the DVD’s for a TV series that “wasn’t good enough” to make it for even half a season before being canceled. Maybe to the public it was “bad,” but that wasn’t why my friend was cursing me—it was so good! She was hooked! And now it was over! I agreed it was good, “It’s flying off the shelves at Amazon, from word of mouth.” As you may have guessed, I am referring to the series Firefly by Joss Whedon, the writer-director of this year’s summer blockbuster, The Avengers. The man who made Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, must have had such high hopes for Firefly… but sometimes you just don’t know.

Up in Edmonton on the weekend I saw an art house movie, Searching For Sugarman, regarding a lyrical singer-songwriter. Afterwards, people stood in the aisles to watch the film credits, not wanting the show to end. Believe it or not: In South Africa they listened for decades to a musician as well regarded over there as any big household name over here. In the documentary made overseas, Searching For Sugarman, some Cape Town music lovers are seeking to penetrate the mystery of a gifted artist of the late 1960’s, a man who, according to legend, committed suicide on stage. If the world wasn’t good enough for one as beautiful as he, then no wonder he made no more albums.

The wonder is how his albums were heard everywhere, with every music lover in Cape Town owning them…yet…—here’s the kicker: He was American! No, I hadn’t heard of this man, named Sixto Rodriguez, either. During the movie I was enthralled to hear his music, played over scenes such as pretty skylines and historical civil rights footage; simple musical scenes without any need for fancy “shaky cam” or rapid scene cutting. Awesome. If you have to travel to another city to see it, then do so: the movie is worth it.

I just don’t know, here in “Amurica,” why “we-all” wouldn’t listen to such lyrical music, so pure, so powerful, produced right here in our own backyard.

Sometimes, I just don’t know. It must be painful, even unto suicide, to keep creating art the world disregards. (Stormy, starry night) Poor Vincent died without selling a single piece… they go for millions now. Having thought so much about it, I think I’m entitled to create a little advice: Value your day job, as your art can only benefit from contact with the real world. Enjoy your art, regardless of this painful world, for it is real, and it is yours. My favorite painter, August Renoir, when asked why he still painted despite arthritis in his hand, said it best: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

Sean Crawford
As winter deepens, and Christmas draws near
~My buddy Blair, an avid reader with little use for TV, felt so moved by Firefly that he composed a review: It is still the best review at amazon; people who don’t know he has passed away are still commenting to thank him.

~Any thoughts?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Media Ethics
We live in a media age, or so "they say." It’s queer, then, how so many of "them" don’t understand journalistic ethics. Especially when modern “social” technology allows more people to “join in.” Once, on one of my favorite essay-blogs, I found a few people asking each other why people went to J-school. One of the few times I’ve ever got a “thanks” e-mail, and this was from a fellow with over 20,000 readers, (Scott Berkun) was after I added my voice to those blog comments, explaining that J-school ensures folks have ethics.

I explained there was a Journalism program in Eastern Canada, a short one for people who already have a degree, where if one of your news stories has even one factual error then you fail “… either the course or the semester, I forget which.” Naturally, I did not just “guess” which one you fail. Guessing is only good for gossip—and look what damage that does!

“No guessing” applies to things like, say, the writing of job titles and department titles, the spelling of names and even the dates of rock songs. Finding out these details could be seen by lazy and foolish people as “extra work,” … while being seen by ethical people as merely “just work” that “has to be done.” When I was a volunteer reporter for my university student newspaper I learned it’s OK, when you don’t know a person’s job title, to merely say “employee,” --just don’t guess. All of your facts should be either attributed, “…six tons according to the Vice President,” or else you should be able to bet your right arm on it. At my student paper our style was to attribute everything we possibly could.

As with any lady or gentleman, for whom ethics are common sense, a reporter is always on “Scouts honor.” Your facts and quotes should be good as gold, fit to be re-printed in a royal encyclopedia. Gossip morphs, journalism doesn’t.

Common Sense
At the end of my first year as a volunteer I had the honor of having a story of mine take up the entire top half of the front page, a story “above the fold” as we say. One teensy paragraph of this big story had been researched by Andrew Sparling, a guy who went on to become next year’s editor. Andrew urged me to have the byline solely in my name. But no, I insisted on sharing the byline because, figuratively, I did not want to risk my right arm. Call me a Klingon, but honor is important to me. You can’t be only a tiny bit pregnant, or a teensy bit without honor.

Years after university I freelanced for an intellectual coffee house magazine, Falstaff’s Table. What happened was: After reading a line from Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, “We can’t all be our own Tom Paine,” I researched and wrote a piece on the literary father of the American Revolution. The editor liked it and paid me. Sweet! Then I went on holidays, where one day I was privileged to tour a cement plant. Light bulb! Back to the editor, who told me that no, the public wouldn’t care about the making of cement. So I immediately asked if I could do a “history of concrete” piece. The editor agreed. I found it fascinating that during the Dark Ages the peasants, who only knew of stones, bricks and mortar, would think the mossy old Roman bridges had been built by the devil, as the technology had been lost.

Meanwhile, as I was writing the article, a lady told me that when her husband, an engineer, went on holidays he too would visit cement plants. He was very interested in my upcoming piece, she said, as his colleagues were always looking for ways to make concrete interesting to the public. As it happened, he and his wife left town right after the piece came out, so I never got to say: The factual errors were my editor’s! Without telling me, the editor had added some engineering that he himself was not absolutely sure of. This without attributing it to himself or anyone else. Grrr!

I took his money and sat him down and explained he would get no third piece from me.

Looking back, I suppose that editor didn’t much believe in people. I realized he had given me a few little clues to his beliefs, the most important being how he believed in “fact checkers.” Aw, rubbish! To be clear: Neither of my city daily newspapers uses “fact checkers” nor did my student newspaper. We would have been deeply offended at the idea.

No Hired Guns
According to Business Guru Peter Drucker, as documented in his autobiography, Adventures of a Bystander, “fact checkers” were introduced by the Luce media chain. Drucker, who knew Henry Luce personaly, found this laughable, especially when the checkers would proceed to alter the copy (manuscript) because they had misunderstood. Well, I’m not laughing. If your writers need to be fact checked, if they have no loyalty to the brand of “journalistic ethics,” then what are they? Hired guns? ...

Here’s another ethic: A journalist reports the news; he doesn’t make it. To put it crudely, he does not act as an agent provocateur. Staying above the fray, he only reports what’s already there.

“Already there” means: For taking a photograph, outdoors, he does not first rearrange the rocks on the ground to look more balanced, nor, when indoors, artfully re-arrange the furniture, nor, for a human subject, put on make up or lipstick. I documented this in my essay Citizen Activist, archived November 2011. When we activists were ambling down the sidewalk, and I was walking alongside David Gazzard, a Calgary Herald reporter I knew, every time the TV cameraman turned around to get a shot of us all, David would step aside down onto the road, out of camera range. It was not his place to “make news.”

Once, on a late Saturday afternoon, my university chaplain and I were the very last ones left at a public rally at the Family of Man statues downtown. I was covering it for my newspaper. A lonely Calgary Herald reporter appeared. The rally speaker, former Lieutenant-Governor Grant MacEwan, was long gone, and so was the crowd. Oh well, at least the reporter could still interview us for quotes… but only after the chaplain and I both testified I was truly there as a citizen, besides being a volunteer reporter; we swore I absolutely would have still attended the rally even if I wasn’t reporting back to the student paper.

Fair is Fair
Here’s another ethic: A gentlemen of the press is fair and unbiased, providing balanced reports. I realize some skeptical smirking guy might want to “discuss” how we all have some measure of bias. Really? That’s one rabbit I’m not chasing.

Of course out in nature the measurement of zero does not exist: Even vegetarians have pollutants in their body and live with clicks of background radiation. So if some cynic says to me, “Everyone has bias” then I respond, “Sure, we all have a few decimal points of bias. No one has zero. Yet when I was a soccer referee, even with my own side playing, I could feel myself being fair.” It’s a neat feeling, just like when I’m being a community centre chairman. I suppose part of what’s cool is feeling my heavy ego, which I normally drag around like a chain, fall away. Then, by comparison, I enjoy something approaching the focused clarity of a Buddhist monk.

Again, when I am a judge at toastmaster competitions, with a speaker from my own club involved, I am always fair. In fact, for toastmasters we have several judges, not to even out bias but to even out human error, as with judging skating or rhythmic gymnastics. Of course, whenever we have the luxury of extra judges—oh joy--then I would bow out of judging anyone from my own club.

“Balanced reports” means: There are always two sides. Every police rookie soon learns, when it comes to disputes, not to righteously rush off to make an arrest until he hears the other fellow’s story too. (According to best-selling police fiction by Joseph Wambaugh) An ethical reporter, likewise, will seek out and include the “other side,” and then trust the readers to judge. That’s what balanced means… Unhappily, I think the owners of a certain Canadian news service have compromised themselves. Long before “global warming” became downgraded to “climate change” I had become suspicious that their stories on “warming” were favoring emotional bias over science: I had noticed they never included quotes by global warming “deniers.”

Balance Over Bias
Does your community library have female librarians? Are they religious? Good friends? Well, what about abortion? Do the friends all agree they will only stock books in favor… or only against? ... Easy: When it comes to abortion, or any issue, according to a librarian, they will take care to purchase an equal number of books advocating both sides. I have to chuckle: In their case, “balance,” with their books on a scale, is meant literally!

You might ask, “Yes, but what if a journalist really, truly, needs to express his bias?” Easy: That’s what editorials and columns are for. These days I am following the blog of a Calgary Sun newspaper columnist, Warren Kinsella. In the little bio for his column he is called a backroom political party worker. In other words: openly, honestly biased. On his blog, where he includes all his columns, he recently replied to a commenter who had chastised him ‘as a journalist’: “I’m not a journalist, you moron.” His Sun column? It always appears with his personal photograph, signaling the column is personal and partisan.

As for politics, as far as it affects reporters, one of the “hazards of the trade” is they may become “political eunuchs.” (After all, they have to cover all parties) This I learned at a free afternoon workshop in “dealing with the media.” Our teacher was a liberated lady from the CBC. I had a nice time. In attendance, at the carpenter’s union hall, were activists from many causes. In the midst of us learning to write press releases, someone popped the question: “Is there a conspiracy?” Silence. You could have heard a pin drop. The answer was… no, and … the folks who become editors all tend to be of the same type, so in that sense the news is the same. But they do try, she assured us, to be ethical.

Truth Over Entertainment
Peter Drucker, who worked in the real world long before he invented “business management,” once wrote that businessmen in a boardroom, before they are constrained to compromise, should first determine what is Right. In the world of journalism, I have found newspapers to be the gold standard for ethics, for what is Right. I cherish newsprint journalism for being appropriate: I believe it’s all downhill from there. For the other media, I think journalists still know what is Right, even as they compromise. Like how people who once took driving lessons still know what a driving instructor would say to do.

For example, when Chatelaine magazine was caught putting lipstick on their cover photo of K.D. Lang, they had the grace to blush. They didn’t make excuses or claim, “Hey, that’s entertainment.” (In the accompanying article, Ms Lang said she doesn’t wear makeup)

To me, the worst journalism is television: Descended from vaudeville, dependent on ratings and aimed at a much lower common denominator, television really compromises. Neil Postman has done excellent work on analyzing the difference between newsprint and TV. (See his How to Watch TV News) He has pointed out that if you typed out all the words spoken in a half hour 6 o’clock news program, the words would only equal the front page of a newspaper. But at least there are nice pretty moving pictures!

Clearly, then, there is no such thing as a daily “Fox Newspaper.” At least, not yet.

Surely, to a lady or gentleman, ethics are common sense. It logically follows, when doing social media, it only takes a second of self-discipline to do what is Right.

Meanwhile, if the “6 o’clock infotainment,” due to various constraints, is simply unable to be as “journalistic” as the less entertaining “just the facts Ma’am” newspapers, then I think everybody and their dog should be aware of that. After all, we live in a media age.

Sean Crawford
Calgary, 2012

~Even though I was 90% sure that Postman’s book was called Understanding TV News (In fact, it’s called How to Watch TV News) I did not write using my memory. I took time to look up the title after applying the acid test from an old army captain in David Gerrold’s Chtorr Wars series: “Be Sure! Can I rip off your arm if you’re wrong?” ...That’s the sort of thing I mean by ethics.

~ For how to read newspapers with ease, see my Reading Newspapers, archived in November 2012.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Go Outside and Play!

Life is queer.

“Go outside and play!” That’s what we told our children, back in the 20th and 19th and 18th centuries. We always meant well. “Aw, kids these days.” But we adults have never been much better.

Any time I hear parents say, “Go outside and play!” I have to blush: I don’t see myself as setting an example to the fair children across our fair land. No, not when my greatest joy outside of my home is hanging around the inside of coffee shops. At least I can say that in my little cabin I don’t have any TV cable, nor rabbit ears, nor video games, but that’s only because I know my limitations: I know I won’t read history or make art if I dare have those distractions. As it is, I still stay up too late doing nothing.

It was in the 18th century that Benjamin Franklin, highly respected in his community, spread the word to us adult-type persons: We could really save on the price of candles, Franklin urged, if only we got up earlier and went to bed earlier. History tells us we didn’t listen.

In the 19th century folks were saying, and this may have been Franklin’s little ditty, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.” Such a nice little rhyme. One of my favorite Victorians was known in his day for being one of the very few people to ever start an international organization. I’m referring to Sir Robert Baden-Powell, hero of the Boer War and founder of the Boy Scouts. B-P said that by starting his day early he added an hour per day to his life, adding up to— er, something or other… Which sounded so good to me, right up until one day when I reflected… we all have the same number of waking hours! Maybe he was kidding himself, unconsciously, but I’m sure he meant well. Just as we mean well when we say, “Go play outside!”

My favorite 19th century humor writer is a Briton, Jerome K. Jerome, best known for his classic novel Three Men in a Boat. (To say nothing of the dog) In his age, a more innocent, more rural and less crowded time, Jerome wrote of how people like to flock to the gaslights. This makes perfect sense: They didn’t have any neon lights.

In Jerome’s novel three young friends get away from the city; eventually they tie up their boat at a remote slow river, and they set up the tent. Next morning, one virtuous fellow, Jerome, decides to take an outdoorsy refreshing dip in the cold, cold water… "Arrrg!" Of such stout fellows, of such stout ideals, was the Scout movement later to arise. As for the other two, they have more sense: Forgoing any morning dip, they stay in the tent until a civilized hour. Of such fellows are empires built.

In the mid 20th century my dear mother, although she grew up listening to radio plays like Gunsmoke and Dragnet, “dummm dee DUM dum,” always gave me funny looks when I wanted to watch those same shows on our old black-and-white. And she really didn’t “get” Saturday morning cartoons. “Go outside! Run around!” And I would. I would run around smacking my foes just like Batman--but not until Saturday afternoon.

Now at last it’s the 21st century: We have mothers and fathers, at last, who themselves grew up watching television and Saturday morning cartoons, progressive modern parents who surely “get it.” Hurray! Yes, and just as surely they are still saying, “Go outside!” Kids just can’t win—in any century.

This summer, indoors at the cinema, (with young company, I hasten to add) I watched Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The kid is so excited to have a whole summer off so he can set himself up with drinks and snacks and plunk himself down to play video games all day… inside.

Well! Harumph! When I was that wimpy kid’s age—no, even younger-- I walked a mile and a quarter, two kilometers, to get to my elementary school. In the heat of summer I walked to other elementary schools, much further away, as part of a “summer reading program.” How excitedly (before student packs or plastic bags) I carried heavy stacks of books in my arms home to read… inside. I suppose my mother consoled herself that at least I was walking. As for that 21st century wimpy kid, his father ends up wearing a scout-leader’s hat, and putting himself and his kid into “Scouts” for the summer. (The “Wilderness Explorers”) Tres Bien. As they say in France, “The more times change, the more they stay the same”… Ironically—should I groan or laugh?—the other adult leader crams his tent with even more luxuries than Jerome’s two friends would ever dare.

As for me, I must admit, these days, I don’t walk enough. Sometimes, for almost a full second, I regret trading in my bus pass for a car. And if I read of pasty white adults in Calgary and Toronto who book their holidays to coincide with their city film festivals, then my eyes take on a far away speculative look…

Sean Crawford
Old enough to finally afford to see movies
But too busy to go
Calgary 2012

~I’ve learned that reading can be approached as carefully as planning refreshments for a spectator-type professional ball game…or a wimpy kid’s video day. This was after I told my buddy Blair I planned to soon re-read the lengthy classic Dalgren, by Samuel Delaney. Blair loved that book! He immediately recommended that I make sandwiches first so that I can start the book early on Saturday morning and not have to stop to make lunch.

~As I had announced in a previous footnote, I booked a hotel room for the reader-writer festival When Words Collide, in mid-August. Our days, with five to seven seminars running at once, never started until a nice civilized hour.

What I found so very charming, in the quiet morning hours, was how so many fellow nerds would take a book to breakfast!

~Any comments?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading Newspapers
I keep six honest serving men (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling

What’s new? Whaz up? What’s the sitch?... (situation)

For news, if you want “bang for your buck,” then newspapers are the way to go. Comment one: “But I don’t want any bad news.” Answer: We can touch on that later, fellow citizen.
Comment two: “But newspapers are too big to read.” Answer: Well now, let’s dig into that idea.

A lot of good citizens don’t read any books at all from year to year, let alone big books. So how can we expect them to read big newspapers? In my city there are two major dailies: a bigger “broadsheet” newspaper, and a thinner “tabloid” newspaper. The tabloid is easier, but still big.

Imagine the poor working person, coming home exhausted to a stuffed easy chair, tired enough to talk in a flat voice like Detective Friday on Dragnet saying, “Just the facts Ma’am.” Here’s the good news: A good newspaper is organized to give just that: the facts. That’s because each news article is written pyramid style. The five W’s are put in the leading paragraph, known to reporters as “the lead.” Often the second paragraph continues to set out the bare bones of the story. Call this the top of the pyramid. Once the barest of W’s, Rudyard Kipling’s honest serving men, have been dealt with then the pyramid gets wider and wider with more and more elaboration, extra details, and even some details the average person won’t want to know.

I am reminded of the little boy writing a thank you letter to his aunt: “Thank you for the book about penguins. It told me more than I wanted to know….” As readers, then, we can gallop through the newspaper reading just the headlines and leads. We can read down any pyramid we like, stopping halfway, once we have learned enough. How easy.

Of course on Sundays the worker does not sink into his chair but sits more lightly, more sprightly. After some church and some visiting he is quite refreshed, and still has free time. Hence the phrase “Sunday supplements” for newspaper features on science and gardening and so forth. These articles will be longer, with longer paragraphs, and they won’t follow the pyramid format. Just as with news, of course, the reader still has permission to skim and omit some pieces entirely. I’m telling every Puritan churchgoer: It’s OK not to consume every word… the starving kids in Asia won’t mind, they will find their own newspapers.

Now, what’s about all this fuss about “bad news?” Unsurprisingly, human nature hasn’t changed since the Book of Genesis. (The lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah are still whispering in my brain) Join the women at the well and you will still hear them exclaiming over the bad news… and the good news too. There is talk of new wells and irrigation projects, new factories and new jobs, and new funding drives to feed the children…. and there is news of factories catching fire and burning down in the night, too… If we responsible citizens want the news, then don’t we have to take the bad with the good?

On the other hand, we will always have the option of exchanging “citizenship” for the comfort of letting other people rule us… then the mysterious all-powerful “they” can be left all-responsible and we can comfortably dispense with reading any news.

The women at the well who speak of local good news—the church bazaar, the folks helping the widow, the Star Trek convention—tell such news knowing it is of only local importance. The truly big stuff, news that gets propagated clear across the time zone, is most likely to be “bad news.” That’s just how it is…

And what if a newspaper or radio resolved to only propagate good news? Well, it’s been tried; it always fails: People want a mix of the good, the bad and ugly.

 The woman at the well are jolted by bad news, and yes, they truly want their jolt… but they are not bad people. They love their gossip, but make no mistake: On the whole they are good people trying to do the right thing. These ladies are “the long and the short and the tall” and they live in this dusty, messy world of ours. Heaven can wait. Our world is not as nice as the world in Star Trek, but at least it’s real.

Many wells in the dusty Near East date back to the Old Testament. Today, throughout the Near East, only one state has democracy. That state is only a “minority of one.” Well. Does this mean those people are mistaken to have democracy? No, it means they have faith in people. Democracy is based on the faith that most of the people, most of the time, will do the right thing, provided they have the information. Hence every democracy needs freedom of speech, meaning: freedom of information. Meaning: a free press.

Of course information can be propagated by waves from a tall television broadcast tower. But there’s a problem with taking a whole thirty minutes for the 6 o’clock news: If you took every word spoken, and typed it up in newsprint, it would equal only the first page of the newspaper. (According to Neil Postman) Not much bang for your buck! Hence this essay to encourage reading newspapers. Newspapers aren’t too “bad,” and if you read them right, taking less than thirty minutes, then they aren’t too big.

God bless democracy.

Sean Crawford
On mountain time
November 2012
~Real reporters, regarding news articles, use the metaphor “inverted pyramid” but I like my own right-side-up image better.

~I like how the Arab news agency, Al-Jazeera, believes in democratic journalistic ethics.

~ Freedom is coming. In Pakistan more people are starting to say it is wrong to murder a schoolgirl for wanting an education. Same as in Afghanistan. Of course extremists are afraid: Once the ladies become literate, who can ever stop them from encouraging their children to take a grownup interest in the newspapers?

~Needless to say, although the extremists won’t agree, you can still believe in Islam while also believing in the law, human rights and democracy. I like the web site of a young Muslim lawyer in Australia, an “Aussie Mossy.”

~For further documentation that Muslims in the East agree with the West supporting them to achieve their modern freedoms, in Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, see Canadian correspondent Michael Petrou’s 2012 book Is this Your First War? subtitled Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World.

~Is the public worthy of democracy? Any oppressor will always tell you, “No.” In Iran the Islamics say only the clerics are good enough. There the high clerics, and not solely the Ayatollah, have more political power than their president does. Over in the Far East the communists say very few are good enough to be allowed to join the communist party. Back in Europe the nobles used to say the peasants weren’t good enough because, metaphorically, they didn’t have any blue blood. That’s why when the American commoners in 1776 insisted on trying democracy, the nobles called it “an experiment” and predicted it would fail… So far, so good.

~What do you think?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Harry and the Teens
An Appreciation of The Cross-time Traders by Harry Turtledove

Like many grown adults, I freely admit to enjoying “cross-over” books: These are young adult (YA) books enjoyed by adults too. I enjoy being carried away to worlds where, say, preparing for the senior prom is Real and Earnest. Even more, I like the fantasy world of the Harry Potter series, yes, and the science fiction (sf) world of The Hunger Games trilogy, too. What about a time travel book? Would it be experienced as an adventure of fantasy or of science fiction? It would depend on the author. I really appreciate the “Cross-time Traders” YA series by Harry Turtledove. It’s always a pleasure to find a new one.

Every new book takes place on a new “timeline” with new characters. Harry usually portrays two teenagers: one girl, one boy; one time traveler, one native. Both teens are putting energy into questioning and understanding the world they are growing up into. It’s this driving urge to know that makes the series science fiction, not fantasy. I hope schoolteachers and librarians are aware of the Cross-time Traders series.

The gimmick is simple: One of the teens is with parents or an uncle or something, all posing as merchants running a little store, while surrounded by locals who mustn’t ever learn their secret identity. In the series, inventing cross-time travel is just as momentous as inventing the A-bomb, only it’s much, much easier. If the natives ever learned such travel was even possible, they would soon figure out how to do so too. Hence the time-travelers are sworn to lonely secrecy.

These traders are “out of time,” shipping desperately needed grain and resources back to their own world through a portal in the basement. Cool! Secret rooms and concealed technology! The twist is the people travel not to different “times” but to different “earths,” to alternate worlds that have the same date as back home, but are not so advanced. The traders, as it happens, are in the late 21st century. Some of the worlds they trade with have computers with silicon chips, computers as advanced as late 20th century earth, but still not as good as back in the home timeline. Why not?

Various reasons. And here is where Harry’s rollicking good plots disguise “teachings” that could help his young readers gain perspective on the world, just as the heroes are gaining perspective too. As I see it, maximum “progress” over the generations happens when everything goes just right. But lots of things can go wrong. Progress can be delayed, since human societies, alas, are imperfect. My high school history textbook was divided into sections such as ‘The quest for security,’ ‘The quest for freedom’ and so on. God bless our children: They don’t realize yet what it means to be a responsible citizen.

As you know, today’s privileged school kids usually find “the past” boring. They don’t understand how things of “right now,” including things as vital as, say, the War On Terror, are easier to manage if one has an historical understanding of what conditions nurture the public and democracy, and what conditions are abusive to the public.

Harry offers modern lessons. The fear today on the streets of Islamist Iran is like on the streets in the world where the Kaiser’s army got atomics first. Today’s child indoctrination by the Saudi’s exported “madrasses,” or religious schools, (Islam is under attack, Jews are ruling, etc.) is like the California boy, some generations after an atomic war, believing everything he’s been told about the folks over in the next valley. Today the mullahs (priests) of the Arab world are contorting themselves to combine old Arabic words to describe new things, while discouraging innovation and free thought. They are acting like the bureaucrats in the world where the Roman Empire never fell… hence there was no dark age… a world where nevertheless, in the 21st century, they haven’t gone beyond muskets and slavery yet. (An application of the thick best seller Guns, Germs and Steel)

As for slavery, in one of the worlds the US, having advanced into the industrial age, no longer has racial slavery, but they have two levels of citizen, based on race. And in one state--oh irony!--the levels are reversed: Mississippi. In this world the civil rights movement, with the federal transport laws supporting the Freedom Riders, never happened. As well, the locals have a technology that is still a hundred years behind the home timeline. Their divergence in “fortune,” in both senses of the word, came some time after 1776 when, for federal taxation and representation, they couldn’t manage to find the right balance between going by State or by population. (States like Wyoming have fewer people than New York City) And so they couldn’t manage to have a Union. This would echo certain far-reaching mistakes today in the Constitution the US has foisted on Iraq. History matters.

Harry Turtledove’s stories, by encouraging thought experiments, can teach in the way “games” do. As for games, in one novel, Gladiator, the cover shows a hand holding up a typical multi-sided Dungeons’nDragons die. In Italy the teen hero is posing as a typical high school student, helping to run a gaming store, selling Gladiator.

In this world the Soviets have won the contest for “the hearts and minds.” Here Western Europe has joined the east in being under a planned economy. And the children are true believers. At least, supposedly: Just as today’s Islamists need capital punishment for “blaspheming,” so too, the Communists need their scary thought police. The hero is brave. Besides selling Gladiator, he is doing something more: Under the noses of the Reds he is also selling a game about capitalists building railroads. How subversive. This in a world where anyone from Russia automatically has high status.

I don’t think Turtledove is deliberately trying to teach young students, not exactly. He reminds me of an excited developer who once scribbled on paper to describe to me how he would buy and sell hotels to own more and more. I think of the car lover experimenting with fuel mixtures, the old military historian playing his WWII board games, or the starving college business student manipulating a computer spread sheet. What if? Whenever you are fascinated by something you want to get involved. Plainly, Turtledove loves history. And therefore, like a science fiction writer, he asks, “What if--?”

Possibly he has learned old skills like riding a horse, or grinding his own wheat (Sore shoulders!) and then baking his own bread. (Easy to burn!) Perhaps he boils soap. Maybe he even dresses as knight in the SCA. (Society for Creative Anachronism) More likely, I suppose, Harry is a typical English literature guy, feeling most at home curled behind his desk. What strikes me most about literary folks, as compared to my friends who write science fiction, is how they are very unlikely to subscribe to Scientific American. Instead, for them, the most fascinating thing in this world is people. While history looks at characters wholesale, with persons being embedded in their culture, writers look at character retail. Individuals vary. Not all adolescents grow up to be clones of their parents—thank God!

I found one of Turtledove’s cross-time novels to be especially literary. In The Disunited States of America, a girl travels alone with just her grandmother—in a world with no federal Interstate Highways. It’s hard. Not the physical travail, but the emotional. While her dear mother, left back home, is really nice, (why?) her mother’s mother is horrid and immature. Why? The girl begins to look at people to imagine what their choice points were: How did they become who they are? I thought this imagining of “alternate people” was a delightful variation on alternate earths.

The Cross-time Traders series deserves more notice. I look forward to a re-issue of them, this time with matching covers—so I can read them all again! Then maybe they would be noticed by the general public. I suppose a movie might launch the series, but then again, no, for I don’t see how a movie could ever work…

After all, they can’t film Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield, either. The enduring value of Finn, and the Cross-time Traders, is their youthful inner thoughts. It’s something the “moving pictures” can never capture. And it’s something I never tire of reading.

Sean Crawford
Living in the best of all possible worlds,
(Except for some hanging chad and butterfly ballots)
Calgary, 2012
Footnote: It’s neat how Gladiator takes place in Italy, because as a boy I read a (translated?) collection of amusing short stories about a poor village in Italy, written from the viewpoint of the village priest, stories where the priest and the local union leader keep competing for whether the villagers will convert to communism.

Sidebar: The mother of all US time travel stories is Andre Norton’s 1958 novel The Time Traders. The hero begins as a lonely juvenile delinquent unsuited to a near-future society. But he ends up wearing furs in the prehistoric Bronze Age, as part of a little team of traders, one of many little teams intently searching along the timeline. Everything they carry or wear must be authentic or disguised. And for good reasons: They don’t want to change history, of course, and besides: they don’t want to be noticed by the Reds, who also have teams. The Americans desperately need to know where the Reds are getting their lost technology. As the cover shows, it turns out to be ancient aliens. It’s quite a story. I once met an anthropologist and sf writer, Joan D Vinge, whose interest in prehistoric civilizations had been started by that book.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Humble and Iraq
“Humble is good.”
An executive director

Last week at my toastmasters club Bob Elwood was challenged to speak impromptu for a couple minutes on “humble.” He really nailed it!

I wonder how many other club members had once been silly like me: As a lad I got humble mixed up with humility, mixed up with humiliation. Somehow, from reading the New Testament, I had thought a good person would try to be a blank, a cipher, while a really good man would even beat his breast when he prayed. As it turns out, my best friend Susan had been to Bible College, and she advised me they call that “worm Christianity.” Not good.

Later, I’ll get back to what Bob told us. For now, I can say that “humble” has been a useful lifestyle choice. To me humble means: Facing reality, calm and sure-footed, without the crutch of relying on (social) rank, fame or fortune. A crutch should never be a way of life, as a crutch can be knocked away: It is too easy to change communities, lose money or become at last merely one more well dressed retiree on the beach.

I have found I can be well respected at work, yet feel like Stephen Leacock while in a bank, and then comfortably call someone else “sir” in the community. I’m still me: Just me, being non-egotistical. It has taken me years to toss my crutch aside.

I still remember how as a young college student, more insecure than humble, whenever I had to give a presentation I compensated for my stage fright by having a bit of an ego high… and that worked… but then at the end of the speech I was humble me again. It was during my college years, taking Rehabilitation Studies, that I asked a teacher: “Why are the staff from the sheltered workshops, and the staff from the group homes, so angry and disrespecting of each other?” She didn’t know. I asked my boss and favorite CEO, Elaine Yost. “Ego” she instantly replied. Ah yes, the opposite of humble.

Elaine is a role model for me. She has taken her for-profit agency from being squished into the upper quarter of a house to being the second largest rehabilitation agency in the city. This while always respecting the clients, parents and guardians--and never subordinating them to red tape. She could manage this because she was a good and humble leader. One year she received a provincial award.

My favorite 20th century US president, Harry Truman, surely had a big enough ego for his job. “The buck stops here” he said. And, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He managed his ego: he was never egotistical. He never confused himself with his temporary position of being the nation’s CEO. In fact, he talked of folks coming to Washington, on the Potomac River, and then swelling up like frogs with “Potomac fever.” Like Benjamin Franklin, he spoke of stepping down at the end of his term and resuming the most honorable title in all the land: “citizen.” That’s my ideal too. I think a person could counterbalance the stress of even a big Washington job with an ongoing commitment to being humble.

If a big US president can be humble, can a big army general? Sure. General Patton, in the peace before Pearl Harbor, told a fresh lieutenant, “We can always learn from each other.” While some officers will “wimp out” by using military discipline as an armor to keep from accepting feedback or from having to second-guess themselves, the best officers, like Patton with his controversial “unwanted tanks,” will never stop humbly thinking about trying to be better at their profession. I’m thinking now of my favorite peacetime general, Rick Hillier. Having his read his two books, I feel assured he is both competent and humble. Not macho. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in a family of all sisters!

When Hillier speaks, I listen. Here’s what he said about a certain Washington official, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (p 307) “Rumsfeld struck me as a grumpy old man…” (p308) “Rumsfeld didn’t like people pushing back, and I wasn’t invited to come visit with him anymore…” As the War On Terror limps on, the green Krypton, both personal and systematic, radiating from officials like Rumsfeld should be addressed. Truly, “the personal is the political.”

As I see it, Rumsfeld failed himself when he failed to achieve a lifestyle habit of being humble. For him, the “payoff” for being grumpy, for having blinders on, was he got his own way on so many mistakes for Iraq. His green krypton, alas, destroyed the potential of others to reason and speak. The consequences, for the US army, have been thousands of dead and many, many wounded.

Today it’s historical knowledge the US State Department had offered to help, had even, for example, predicted that the priceless world heritage museums would be looted unless protected, but State involvement was rejected by Rumsfeld.

For me the tip of the iceberg, the most egregious example of Rumsfeld being so unprofessional, was his abusive treatment of General Shinseki. The good general, according to various history books, simply tried to explain, before the invasion, that an occupation would require far more troops than an invasion would, far more troops than what Rumsfeld was envisioning would be required. Rumsfeld’s shocking, scandalous and shameful treatment of Shinseki then produced a chilly climate. When nothing was done to redress the specific scandal, not by “the system,” not by other senior officials, nor even by the president himself, then there could no longer be any general feedback offered by anyone. No one raised any thoughtful questions anymore.

Wow, talk about a “smoking gun” for predicting failure: With Washington so self-blinded and dysfunctional, the occupation to build a “democratic Iraq” was utterly doomed in advance.

How could they blindly ignore the State Department? Any schoolboy who took Vietnam would have told the grownups that for nurturing democracy, for “winning the hearts and minds,” the army, even with the embassy involved, still needs help very, very badly. This means top-down systematic help, not random efforts by individual amateurs with Republican Party membership cards reporting to the embassy. And certainly not amateurs being hired in preference over non-Republican experts, when those experts have years of overseas development experience. Which, unbelievably, is what happened in Iraq. Ego again. State should have been involved, and in charge.

If my boss Elaine were ever to learn of any unprofessional behavior like Rumsfeld’s, even by senior executives, she would take immediate action, and then, if appropriate, let the whole organization know things had been dealt with. It’s clear that General Hillier also believes in functional organizations.

Another smoking gun: I find it all too revealing of ego that for the Bush years no one resigned in a shadow, no one was reprimanded, no one was fired… no, not even for the Wall Street melt down. In contrast, Truman fired America’s most popular serving general, the hero of Korea, right in the middle of the Korean War.

Away from the fancy streets of the capital district, away from the bright financial district, are the patched and cracked asphalt streets of the cities and towns of Middle America. As citizens, what can we do? For my part, I can try to “lead by example.” I can “be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” In other words: I can try to be humble.

My fellow toastmaster Bob Elwood noted (in effect) that being humble is a blessed state of being equal to others, not “greater than” nor “less than.” It means being detached from one’s ego, and from the ego of peer pressure. Humble means not taking things personally; it means “being here now;” it means being authentic to yourself. It’s an altogether fitting and proper state of being.

Last year at work I was tasked to take over a team that was being awfully difficult to manage. I could have gone in with a “stern command presence” to take immediate control. Instead? I went in very polite and humble; it all worked out. I reported back to my boss. She approved, saying, “Humble is good.”

Sean Crawford
As summer wanes
~ Last night at toastmasters Esperanza Montalvo did a speech noting that in a certain less democratic Latin American country they believe, as did her mother, that good people don’t say, “I don’t know.” (Partly because rich leaders “should” know more than poor peasants) Esperanza explained that humbly learning to “not know” was a paradigm shift that truly expanded her world, and her ability to truly listen to others.

~ Regarding Shinseki: “The general left all of us in uniform with a new appreciation of what moral courage means and how important it as to give clear and blunt military advice to the powerful, no matter whether they wanted to hear it or not.” (p 184) A Soldier First subtitled Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 2009

~ For a perspective on how the American people consented to the fiasco of Iraq, see my essay of September 2012, Citizenship After 9/11.

~For the US disgrace, and crazy hiring practices for nurturing democracy in Iraq, see the prize-winning Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

~ For a simple structural method to mitigate that fiasco, see the last part of my essay of October 2010, Reality Checks.