Thursday, May 30, 2013

Students, Muslims and Change
After the Boston terror bombings I find myself writing about “belonging, hope and change” with one normal eye, and my other eye biased towards looking at Muslim readers.
Sean Crawford

The Australians have boomerang competitions, but today the best throwers are in the US.
An Australian student of Community Rehabilitation, on a visa at the University of Calgary, in a conversation with Sean, circa 2000 AD.

Although I’m middle aged, old enough to remember where I was when I heard President John F. Kennedy had been shot, I still miss those idealistic student days when we discussed change for our country and ourselves. We loved growth and learning. …Well, that is to say, the choice was there: All the folks you’d pass in the student union building were bright eyed with excitement—I don’t know anything about the party animals who slumped like sloths at the back of the classroom… As an undergraduate I loved meaning-of-life essays on change so here is one especially for students, especially for Muslim students.

A student of physical education, a British immigrant, told me how back in Britain the students planning a recreation class don’t put in goals of how the participants will benefit. Here we do, here we believe in the potential of individuals to change, a belief we’ve held since the first Puritan colonies in New England. Yes, if you want to be a better businessman or leader, have a better life, or learn to eat food with more karma, then come to the land of opportunity. But don’t stop at the New England coast, better head on over to the other coast: California. …Or you can just get a library card.

I’m joking—let's not be prejudiced. All coasts and all nations are equal, of course… and some nations need change more than others. The remaining communist countries, as everyone knows, still need to learn that communism is wrong. And the terror exporting nations need to learn something too… One night, back in the days of long hair and liberation movements, I was at the Orpheum Theatre. (Incidentally, it was used for the golden opera house scenes in Battlestar Galactica) There I was privileged to hear China sympathizer Han Suyin—a very nice person—say something profound about “revolution.” Surely her words could be paraphrased for our new century: “Terrorism must neither be imported nor exported…” There’s a thought to sit with for a while.

Maybe we North Americans, being an optimistic people by world standards, live with too much optimism regarding change, maybe from realizing the same thing the ancient Greeks did: A good democracy requires good people living good productive lives. The Greeks said, “Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen.” And so we remain alert to any chance for change in our lives, whether “the personal or the political.” This while we remain eternally vigilant to avoid sliding down away from liberty. This month some clear and present opportunities are before us—In Canada: the senate spending scandals; in the US: the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department scandals. I don’t think the republic will fall, but I do think the health of the country will depend on whether each scandal is resolutely faced, and then on whether we take responsible action.

Meanwhile, to observers in Iraq, say, where the car bombers of this week presumably have lots of ambition but little hope for democracy, the current North American scandals may shine some light for them on whether democracy for Muslims could be workable and sane, or simply a trick of the Great Satan. Maybe, in the light of the scandals, an ancient Arab-Muslim sharia law system is better after all? I merely ask this from being an academic: The truth is that on paper millions of people do believe in sharia law, more than they believe in the UN’s 1948 declaration of human rights. This is according to recent world polls.

Americans were not polled for their thoughts on sharia law, but they do give some thought to the terror exporting lands. By one scenario, hopeful Americans think that as Muslims come to believe in democracy and human rights there will be less internal terrorism, and less cross-border terrorism. (See economist Kruger) Overseas the liberation-transformed-into-occupation of Iraq, in this scenario, was a part of this hopeful teaching effort, hoping to create the first Muslim democracy on planet earth.

At home, for this vision of teaching, it might seem that certain Americans would be especially good at building bridges and educating folks across the water, but no: local Muslims seem to lack enough self-confidence to do so.

Apparently the confidence seen among Muslim-Americans in my youth, in the 1960’s, teaching the world that certain things are wrong, things like imperialism or apartheid, is a confidence not found among American Muslims of today. We see no teach-ins, sit-ins or be-ins. No street theater, stage plays or movies. No poetry gatherings, rallies or concerts. No post card mail-outs, conferences, or visits to meet and teach. (Or are there?) During the decade the Berlin Wall fell my university student newspaper did an exchange, sending two students to the Soviet Union, and then hosting two young Cold War Soviets, a man and a woman, in return. In contrast, during our new century’s War on Terror, I see no student efforts, no anything… No “puppet shows for peace.” Let’s hope I’m simply uninformed.

As for how to achieve confidence, "there are many roads to Rome." For myself, “nothing succeeds like success.” As a young student, I experienced great change in myself; I saw change in other individuals and groups too. This all gave me the hope and energy to hike the Roman road alongside ambitious people. “I was not always the man you see before you.”

Another road, I as mentioned at the start, is using your library card to learn tools and concepts that may be common knowledge in southern California, concepts such as “boundaries” and “victim.” For example, you can’t be in victim mode and still be a business executive. Maybe classes in business management or social work could best teach various terms, as a classroom setting might be easier than lonely evenings at the library. Another road would be student meaning-of-life discussions, such as, “Across time and space, what would a "lack of boundaries" mean?”

Also worth mentioning, with their track record of success in change, are vibrant groups both in the greater community and in the campus community. For example, during my time at university women of the Mormon religion had Mormon-only meetings to raise their consciousness, and I’ve heard that today on campus there is a Muslim-only feminist group. My point is that, in a land of believers, change is forever possible. American capitalist Henry Ford said it first: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—either way, you’re right.”

One of the values of meeting together is to learn you are “not the only one.” Light bulb! This reduces the energy needed for defending the ego, which then frees up considerable energy for shining brightly, working for change and achieving success. Along this line, it might help a young Muslim student's ego, if he lacks boundaries, to know that Muslim countries are not alone, that certain non-Muslim countries are grappling with the same problems. For example, on the CBC Radio One I recently heard a successful Greek mystery writer being interviewed. The writer said Greece had a victim problem: They never saw anything as their fault. Sound familiar? But don’t despair—In my swift decades of life I have seen so much energy liberated, and so many changes rushing like the wind through North America, that now I will never give up hope for change in other countries too.

I think about these things. If I was a motivational speaker from California speaking to young students in general, then I wonder if anything I would say would be especially helpful to young Muslims in particular. As a matter of fact, yes.

I would start by telling the story of the experienced seafaring Athenians at war with the landlocked Spartans. How could the Spartans ever hope to be as good as the Athenians at sea battles? Obviously the Spartans would need their own war galleys: They’d have to borrow, beg, build or buy their own ships. Meanwhile they would have to sit in ranks on the beach learning to row together. And so they did. Perhaps the Spartans, proud land warriors, felt silly practicing rowing without ships, but in the end their humble determination paid off. They won their sea battle.

The moral is clear: As the proud Athenians found, you mustn’t take old traditions and past expertise very seriously. Any person, any region of persons, can change. For example, when I was a young man we all knew that traditionally the best martial artists were from the Far East, but nevertheless there were two world class artists right here in the United States: Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. It was during his military service in South Korea that Norris had found groups doing their martial training out of doors (not inside a dojo). He had then lingered in the back, trying to copy what he saw, until the Koreans recognized his spirit and invited him to join them.

People of the North, the Canadians, may have invented ice hockey, but during an Olympic tournament their mens team would last no longer than a snowball in the Saudi desert. Amateurs of Eastern Europe had been willing to change to adopt this new sport, becoming much more skilled than Canadians. Finally, as it happens, the Canadians have resorted to sending only their professionals to the Games. (Athletes from the televised National Hockey League)

And while the Americans, back in the days of the TV show Mad Men had said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” feeling so confident and so proud of their auto industry, now they know their protégés in Japan have become better at designing and assembling cars than they are.

Depressing? No, exciting, for now Americans, ever optimistic, can learn to get better at making cars too. How exciting to embrace the future…There is nothing magical about past expertise, not when change is possible. The world is a smaller place, information wants to be free, and the lessons of Henry Ford, “…if you think you can…” are freely available.

It’s exciting how today the schools for Christian priests (seminaries) in the English speaking countries are just as good as the ones across the ocean in Italy. Yes, Italy still produces most of the popes, and yes, Italy is against homosexuals, but still: If a pope or bishop came from Italy to London England, or to London Canada, he would be welcome to join in the church service and he would be politely but firmly informed that homosexuals would not be prevented from worshipping. Not when the experts can study the Holy Bible here just as well as the experts can study in Italy. Information wants to be free.

Here in Canada, our home, the experts will ignore the biblical verse about “you shall not allow a witch to live” because a living god—not a frozen god—does not today believe in violence. And besides, Canada has no death penalty. Surely Muslim experts in Canada will ignore any violent verses too, looking only at the Koran (Quaran) verses that say Islam means peace and good will. ...Well, that is to say, the choice is there: I think Canadians have the character to make the loving choices—in Canada, a land of eager immigrants and visa students, a student shared-house can include a Shiite, a Sunni, an atheist and a Jedi Knight… And that is something you don’t have to take my word for: You can go ask others as part of your student meaning-of-life discussions.

It was my dad’s generation, while ignorant of gays, which established the United Nations for world peace. It was my generation, ignorant of Wall Street, which learned that homosexuals have the right to live their lives in peace and safety. Now we are passing the relay race baton to the younger generation. What will they learn? Something “exciting, new and improved,” I’m sure. Having seen much in my half century, I first dare to hope, and then to believe, that one day people who study Arab history and the Koran in London or Boston will feel just as self-confident as someone studying in Arabia or Iran. Surely one day, with God’s help, young Muslims here will feel confident enough to look across the globe and teach all the Arabs and all the Ayatollahs that Islam means peace.

Sean Crawford
Remembering George Carlin, R.I.P.
May 2013
(Footnotes moved to next essay)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Silence and Three Nerd Heroes

(May 2013) 
I've attended another yearly Victoria Day "Otafest," the weekend festival for otaku: fans of Japanese popular entertainment. We all had a good time. Usually I will write a whole essay afterwards; this time I have only a few remarks.

I continue to be struck by how Americans, unlike the Japanese, are so weird: They can't handle silence. For example, I was amazed last year to catch a clip on Youtube of the beginning of the British dubbed version of the Japanese feature film The Secret World of Arrietty. Having already seen the American version I could compare: I learned the poor Americans, just as they will rush to fill silence in a conversation (a rush that visa students have been warned about) had rushed to gratuitously add dialogue. Such a pity. I've heard the Americans really screwed up Kiki's Delivery Service—When I go to Britain, I know what I'll buy!

On Sunday I enjoyed some episodes of the animated Yokahama Shopping Log, subtitled Quiet Country Cafe, or in Japanese Yokahama Kadashi Kiko. In the twilight of the human race, the camera lingers on silent vistas of clouds, trails in tall grass, blowing signposts... with no humans visible, let alone talk-talk-talking... So beautiful.

Years ago I was delighted as the camera kept showing young Lain Iwakura walking the same stretch of sidewalk, and kept lingering on humming (internet) street wires. Lain is one of my three nerd heroes.

Three TV Nerd Heroes
America loves its TV stars. Here's three: There's that handsome cop my girl watched every week, that starship captain, and how about that crazy redhead? "Luuucy!, I'm home!" Here's my three favorite nerd stars:—but wait! Nerds can't be a show's main hero. Or Can they?

I recall a high school TV movie, from over a decade ago, where the hero is clearly one of the smarter kids. The show opened with chemistry class. Within the first few minutes some other nameless kid in glasses was briefly on stage and then never seen again. This "four eyes" was shown to be the smartest in the class and then was laughed at by everyone when a cupboard slammed on him. The kid's brief role had a purpose: He was to be a foil to prove the star, although smart, was not a nerd: Because the star always has to be a "regular guy." Except for this past decade.

In the old beach movies the foil was a suave ladies man. I suppose Archie has his Reggie. I see a continuum: At one end is the suave guy, always glib and easy, while in the middle is the regular guy, mostly relaxed and friendly, and at the far end is the nerd: unconfident, stiff, both physically and socially awkward. This "stiffness" is what I focus on to define "nerd" although, of course, that is not all there is to it... For further information, there is a long list of nerd characterists recited near the end of a modern beach movie, Revenge of the Nerds II. 


Happily, once we leave school, or so it seems to me, nerds start vanishing like soap bubbles. I suppose getting out and rubbing shoulders in the real world quickly smoothes out the rough spots noted in the aforementioned list. Besides, as the nerds are growing their peers are growing up too—and swiftly becoming too confident to worry that someone is "too smart" with computers. Growth is good.

I remember an episode of Angel. The folks at Angel Investigations are only a few years out of Sunnydale High when a spell makes them regress: We see them once again as they were during their nerdy Buffy days. Oh, how far they've come! ...My three favorite nerd stars, unfortunately, are challenged by more than mere items on a nerd list, items to be easily noted, fixed and checked off... For those three heroes rubbing shoulders is no remedy, not when their stiffness comes from a much darker place, a place still too dark for today's TV viewers.

My three favorite nerds are a girl, a boy and a man.

The DVDs for the girl are unique: Although they are, appropriately, marked for "age 16 and up," the heroine, Lain Iwakura, is only 13. Call her a "quiet loner," or, "a nerd with no friends." As a fan on the web wrote, "She is a nice kid, too bad she's so messed up." Lain's complete story is told in Serial Experiments Lain over one season in Japanese animation. (anime) I watched it dubbed on VHS. At first I wondered if there was a "translation" error for the voice of Lain's mother. She is so bizarrely unmaternal: dry, detached and unaffectionate. No error—Surely this is a clue to explain poor Lain's demeanor. I like Lain because even after she receives criminal child abuse she is still like a selfless car accident victim, still thinking compassionately of others.


The boy, Maxwell Evans, is 16 with spliced half alien DNA. Once an orphan, today his adoptive parents don't know he is one of the alien teens passing for human. The town of Roswell is small enough to still have angle parking and it's surrounded by desert. This means it's very hard, if the kids are ever discovered, to hide or run. The series Roswell lasted for almost three full seasons. On the DVD pilot commentary you can hear Ronald Moore, years before he made the dark Battlestar Galactica, laughing to say something like, "Look, he's almost smiling—hey, there's a flicker..."

Imagine: A teen hero who doesn't smile! Not like a popular student. It's understandable: Max is carrying a lot of weight because the children's real parents, after their saucer crashed, were hidden away by the government, experimented on and killed. The other alien kids say Max is the leader. As with Lain, the result is a certain stiffness. I see Max as the flip side of an angry blond anarchist, Grace Polk, on Joan of Arcadia. Grace actively pushes other students away to keep the secret that her mother is an alcoholic. Maxwell is so quiet because his secret means life or death.

One of my favorite episodes is Toy House where a girl says she wants to tell her adoptive mother. A boy responds, "You can't. What if she turns us in?" (to the government)

"But she's my mother!"

"How do you know know she'll still be your mother?"...silence, a tear... I am reminded of how so many defenceless girls with allegedly "nice religious mothers" have to wait until after they are adults before they dare tell a single soul they are homosexual.


In one episode an alien boy sneaks off with Max to Vegas to have fun. Soon they get into a big fight because Max just won't lighten up... I like Max because he never escapes into clowning or drugs or denial of how they are in danger. He just never quits.

An actor from Alberta plays the adult nerd. On the DVD commentary for Firefly he explains trying to tell creator Joss Whedon that he couldn't see himself playing the part, saying (I forget) something like,"This character is a hollow man, with no plans or dreams, nothing springing up inside, no joy. He is just going to just...keep on going." The character of Malcolm Reynolds, captain of a tramp freighter, is unique: Although he used to be a regular guy, now he is a nerd.

In the opening credits, in a flashback, he kisses his religious medal; now he is a hard atheist. Once he learned the social skills for dancing and mingling; now he wouldn't care to go to a dance, not even if one were held right beside the port.

Something happened: he was a sergeant at the lengthy famous battle of Serenity valley. Every single officer was killed while Malcolm led the remnants to fight on... Only to have their idealism betrayed. When Malcom finaly left that valley of shadows he left his light behind.... I am reminded of a Vietnam veteran who cried out in the night.


The series lasted less than half a season, which makes it sound like a real bad show. But since then? The DVDs have been "flying off the shelves" at amazon due to word of mouth... leading eventually to funding for a feature, Serenity. (The name of his freighter) However, the movie failed to re-launch the series. Why? Perhaps because the film was a compromise, being written, I think, partly to appeal to fans who had seen the TV series. Never do that.

I like Malcolm because, unlike a timid middle-aged man, all of his inner conflicts have been burned away: He is very clear. When he strides to do something even a big muscular criminal steps aside.

...This past decade of TV has probably been a fluke. I don't expect to see any more nerds as TV stars. Still, I am awed at my good fortune to have known the glory of Malcolm, Max and Lain.

Sean Crawford

May 2013.20


~ I put a link at the end of Silence (music is from the ending of Wreck-It Ralph) partly because I like the patches of Calgary snow in the background. No other such camera work (for a cosplay music video) in any other city would show such snow—"you gotta love your hometown."

~ It is no coincidence that the old Enterprise transporter room was made for only six. I remember seeing the opening credits for Young Riders, where they ride abreast, and groaning, "Oh no" after counting six (or seven) people. The problem? I think six is the absolute maximum number of main characters for a story- unless you are doing an ensemble piece. Better to use five or three.

For Firefly to get away with nine characters they needed A) a gifted writer like Joss Wedan and B) a two hour pilot. Which was done.

Then the Fox "suits," unfortunately, A) made Joss improvise a one hour pilot giving him a deadline of a single sleepless weekend to write it and B) aired the episodes out of order. The real pilot was shown dead last—too late!

Critic Roger Eibert said, "What a crock" saying Fox should have given Joss, because of his success with the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the benefit of the doubt and gone with his intended order.

~ David Gerrold, in his book about Star Trek, portrays a clear understanding of how a movie is a different animal from a TV show. I thought that Serenity had a very blurred understanding which I interpet as being due to a compromise.

~ Sometimes I joke that I am a nerd, but no one ever believes me. (I was not always the man you see before you)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Real Men and Me

Some years ago, in the early eighties, a book title made it into popular culture: Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. Well. Just how do you define a real man? Obviously many worried males wanted to know, judging by the continuous laughter. At the time there was a Sally Forth cartoon (my memory is imperfect) where the daughter, holding a toy tricorder, walks into the kitchen where her dad was eating, saying to him, “My wimp meter is reading: Someone is eating quiche.”
Sally takes her daughter aside, “Don’t say that; now he’ll do something silly like take up hang gliding.”
Daughter: “Does this mean I should take back the pink sweater I’m getting him for Christmas?”

At the time there was a fad for men wearing pink shirts; but I suppose the color is again out of fashion—not-that-I-pay-attention-to-men’s-fashions, because hey, I’m a real man… During most decades gender differences are something you “just know,” but don’t explicitly analyze. If feminism has ebbed it’s because of the big problem associated with digging into the truth of these things: “The truth shall set you free, but first it shall make you miserable.”

As a teenage boy, as best I recall, none of us were into learning something as abstract as “women’s liberation.” At most, we merely thought “liberation” meant “jobs” for women. I had no nerd peers back then, so maybe I missed a small part of teenage life, but still, I think I can speak for average teen boys: We weren’t ready for philosophy yet, not until the post-secondary years. I did carry one nugget off to college: While reading a war nonfiction book in high school, I found a sentence from the volunteers of WWII: “Most of us (civilian volunteer) marines felt Hemmingway was a bit too hairy chested for real life.” I knew the name, of course, but I had never read him. I filed that sentence away as just one more thing I wasn’t able to understand yet.

Off at community college, no longer trapped school kids but instead volunteers, of the age to have our peer’s permission to think deeply and critically, we took two works of Earnest Hemmingway, a short story and a novel. I stuck up my hand excitedly to say, “Wow, this is exactly what I somehow gleaned a real man was like!” (OK, I didn’t say “gleaned,” but I was sure excited) As I recall, the class thought Hemmingway hadn’t influenced society so much as captured what was in the air.

Around that time I remember feeling relieved to read the science fiction of Larry Niven. His bachelor characters, like Hemmingway’s, might wear shirts with breast pockets and epaulets, but in Niven’s universe, where war was not practical, there was no traction for the military virtues. And Niven’s characters rarely knew anyone who hunted. Most importantly, to the young man I was, Niven’s characters were shown as understanding science and being “articulate”: the exact opposite of being "strong and silent." In other words, in Niven’s eyes, I could be a storybook hero even if I went to university and was smart.

This I needed to know, lest I “soak up self-hatred from my culture,” a risk the feminists knew of all too well. Hey, I couldn’t help being smart and liking books and wearing glasses. I wasn’t the only young man trying to understand our culture: A US Marine rifleman during the Korean War noted in his diary that his young peers couldn’t laugh with a natural giggle, only an Homeric roar. That same young man raised his status by saying he had gotten into a fight in town, and won—this after first thoughtfully scraping his knuckles back and forth on the sidewalk to add verisimilitude.

As for Hollywood, everybody knew, back in my pre-Vietnam childhood, that the classical American hero was “the duke.” A broad shouldered plainspoken man, he appeared in classic westerns and war movies. His very name was plain and simple: John Wayne. But here’s the thing: I caught a telling scene late one night on TV (probably Rio Bravo) where John Wayne was the sheriff. It was an office-jailhouse scene: Someone starts playing a guitar and singing; others sing too or keep time clicking spoons or tapping mugs; a real good time is enjoyed by all. During all this our strong hero just smiles. He isn’t a spoilsport who would make the others feel unmanly—but he doesn’t quite join in, either.

In the duke’s world, it’s as if real men can whistle but not sing. They can’t be too graceful at dancing, or too artistic, or—of course in reality they were: I’m only talking about the cultural ideal. ’Tis a culture unhealthy.

I’ll never know how many men, like those young guys in Korea, put their actions where their beliefs were, men like the hero’s friend in the novel Revolutionary Road. (Later a Brad Pitt movie) During the conformist 1950’s the poor guy deliberately evades any cultural growth, tries not to ever grow verbally skilled, and marries an uncultured wife. What he might call “trying to be a regular guy,” trying to do the right thing, I would call “destroying his character.”

As for Earnest Hemmingway, such a sensitive gifted writer, he ended up, as writer Rita Mae Brown notes, needing to have his picture taken standing beside dead animals.

On the other side of the “real man” coin was my first hero of my adult years: a fellow essayist with the pen name George Orwell. (Eric Blair) While Hemmingway drove ambulance in the Great War, Orwell, just a shade too young for that war, was a volunteer seeing combat in the Spanish civil war. Hemmingway had no college but he spent much time at Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris. Orwell had gone to a tough boarding school that produced tough imperial administrators, later to Eton—“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”—and then gone on to join the imperial police force in Burma. At last he threw it all away—rejecting imperialism, resigning his commission—to go investigate first hand what it was like to be Down and Out in Paris and London. In his own way, he too was trying to do the right thing. He was one of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Today we might say Orwell worked on “becoming liberated.” Truly, I think Orwell was manly enough, even if he could recite poetry. (So can I)

During WWII various G.I.s, wanting to meet Orwell, made their way his flat; meanwhile, Orwell made his way to Hemmingway’s quarters. Entering the room, he quietly put out his hand, saying, “Hi, I’m Eric Blair.”
Hemmingway yelled something rude, like “Who the hell wants to know?”
Orwell tried again, quietly. “I’m George Orwell.”
Then Hemmingway was again rough and manly, saying something like, “Hi! Have a snort!” and reaching under his bed to hold up a jug.

Looking back on poor Hemmingway, I think he trapped himself into writing characters who have no wife or children in order to maintain his belief that a “real man” is rude and inconsiderate. Meanwhile, the characters played by the duke could be married, or get engaged at the end of the movie. John Wayne was never a jerk, and we all liked him.

Lately I’ve been thinking about two men of the Conroy family. The father was a US marine officer who flew fighter jets. The son, Pat Conroy, was never a manly marine, but he was the next best thing, by our cultural indicators: He attended a military college, (with harsh hazing) played varsity basketball, and in later years was invited to speak yearly at the coast guard academy, years when Pat was a successful novelist. Pat stands as yet another reminder not to take our culture’s “real man” totem too seriously.

Pat’s father, unfortunately, was not a good human being. In fact, he was lucky not to be criminally charged and drummed out of the service, but his secret was never uncovered… He was an horrific abuser of his wife and children, unbelievably horrific: Pat seriously thought none of his brothers and sisters would go to the old man’s funeral. How strange: When the man died, the children attended and the town had a big funeral. People liked the old colonel. What had happened was this: Pat wrote a novel where he made the father sympathetic enough to read about, The Great Santini. (Later a movie starring Robert Duval) What happened next was the father tried, and succeeded, to live up to the good character in the novel. He changed.

When people such as a marine colonel and a colonial police officer are willing to change it is so wondrous—this proves liberation is possible for the rest of us too. Truly we may change… as individuals, and as a culture. It was entirely appropriate for the women of my youth to go seeking liberation for us all. We might associate change and growth mostly with our college years, and rightly so, but Orwell had been all finished school when he sought a new path, and “Major Conroy,” who as a middle aged father got college grades of C-minus, did his personal growth after his eldest son Pat had finished college and become a writer.

My platoon sergeant had no college—he went straight to the forces from secondary school. I can still picture him as a middle-aged man of high morale in a big tent during winter warfare. There he once pulled out a paperback, with some silly title about men’s issues, to say laughingly, “You guys are all going to die early because you don’t face your manhood issues.” He was, he told us, giving the matter intense study.

Only a live fish swims upstream: While it’s OK for most folks to live a life on automatic pilot, it’s more fun to be thoughtful about the world around us.

Sean Crawford
Wearing a pretty pink vest and capris to work for a late-winter "Beach Day,"
And then getting a laugh by saying,
“Hey, I’m secure in my sexual identity.”
Spring, 2013

~In the forces it was common knowledge that statisically we would die five years after retirement....
In an Army Journal in the 1950's an officer noted that the combat arms had the shortest life span in retirement and speculated that it was from these arms having less sleep. Today the theories tend away from the physical and more towards southern California psychology: That people need a reason to be busy, need a life of meaning.

~The Eton quote, of course, is from the Duke of Wellington, after leading the allies at the battle of Waterloo

~If people of the terror-exporting nations are standing sadly on the shore while the river of progress rolls on leaving them behind, it is because, seeing themselves as "victims," they lack self confidence to change… easier to look backwards to a seemingly golden sharia past.

~The enthusiastic US marine diarist was Martin Russ, for The Last Parallel. One day in broad daylight, safe behind the lines, he timed how long it took to cover ground while walking silently at the same speed as one of his night patrols in no man’s land. Very slow. As a boy I tried it too. While deer can slide their hooves silently under old brown leaves, I could never tread old leaves without noise.

~Joan Didion once did an essay about her girlhood love of John Wayne.

~My knowledge of Pat Conroy comes from his excellent philosophical memoir My Losing Season. He had a love of learning basketball, of academic learning, and of reflection on what he was learning, loves that I suspect those who attend college merely “to get a job” will never know.

~One of the Austin Powers spy comedies referenced The Great Santini: The scene where the villain comically bounces a light inflatable beach ball globe off a guy’s head saying, “Are you gonna cry now?” In the Santini movie it was a heavy basketball, brutally bounced repeatedly off the back of the boy’s head as he kept walking away. Watching Austin Powers, I was glad to see the old Oscar-nominated movie was still remembered, because when it came out (1979) I think many people stayed away as it was too soon after Vietnam.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Muslims, Universities and Belonging

Since my Belonging piece of two weeks ago, (April 2013) I’ve been thinking of young people and community. For my part, as an undergraduate, I came to feel part of the smaller “campus community” through attending exciting guest lectures, seeing the quadrangle in the moonlight, helping friends navigate between their parents and their brave new university culture—“you can’t go home again.”

Back then I never thought about Muslim students coming from lands without democracy—are such places lacking “community?” This I wonder because recently, with the graphic autobiography Marzie (Poland under communism) and Anna’s story To the Edge of the Sky (China under communism), I have become aware of how mean people under oppression can be. During the 1980’s I found the Russians had a saying, “Everyone moves alone” meaning they wouldn’t help anyone move their stuff to a new residence. How alien to us. Could it be that people suffering oppression can’t cooperate with each other, are instead thrown back on their clan and family, because they can’t care about each other?

I am wondering because two or three more young men in Boston, from the former Soviet Union, have been arrested: not radicalized jihad-ists, just guys who recognized the photographs of the killers. But then, instead of telling the community, they went to the bomber’s residence and threw evidence in the dumpster. As you know, further mass loss of life was avoided only because the terrorists were caught on their way to kill again in New York City. Did the young men put “friendship” over the community? Over saving lives? Did they delegate “caring” to the “government?” That’s not how democracy works.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a university PhD student has been arrested for terror, for plotting to kill people on a passenger train. Strange: I always think of hot-blooded students as trying to be fair, and of professors as trying to be sane and thoughtful. Not always, I guess. If I were a young student, today, my “meaning of life” conversations would be about belonging to a community.

I think, if I were a Muslim student today, I would open-mindedly ask: Could our community include atheists from former communist countries, and atheists with parents from Muslim countries? Furthermore, how could democracy ever work if we try to keep people out of our community and out of our heart? How could we deny them—or ourselves—the chance to volunteer to join in sandbagging the river against a terrible spring flood, or help in a summer riverbank clean up, or run in a fall marathon to raise funds for cancer research? After all, such actions by “the people,” not “the government,” are important for feeling responsible for democracy, important for a feeling of belonging to the community.

I wish I could be an undergraduate again, in the dormitories late at night, listening to students reasoning it out.

I decided this piece needed to be posted again.
Muslims, University and Belonging
I've been thinking lately about Muslim students at university. A few months back the world newspapers carried a story where a prominent beauty pageant contestant, a Muslim, made some anti-west pro-violence public statements. From Muslim students worldwide the silence, as usual, was deafening. In my own neck of the woods there was no sign of any Muslim "idealistic longhaired student" rebuttal. Why not?

The Muslim population is probably too big to be compared to subcultures such as gypsy, mafia or biker. The parents in those narrow minded groups, it seems to me, would rather their children attended technical schools, career colleges or were trained in hospitals rather than become creative liberated thinkers. Forget university—No questions allowed!

I used to wonder about the mafia. How does a young criminal find a nice proper Catholic girl to marry? Easy: find girl raised in a mafia family. Perhaps, as in the movie Good Fellas, she was beaten with a broom handle as child. Her crime valuing family will embrace not only dysfunction but also control of members. They will have a word for outsiders; they won't marry them.


Needless to say, in any subculture, no one's consciousness is raised enough to say, "We believe in dysfunction and control." It's like how a "dystroling" member of biker gang reacts so unconsciously if a member enters the biker clubhouse wearing a soft pink T-shirt. Now, if a sociologist was present, observing, then he alone would know the thoughts: ..."If one person can dress outside the norms of our subculture then others may feel free to dress with less rigid gender roles, or to dress like colorful ethnics, or... like suburban "straight Johns," and soon we will feel some sympathy for others, and then consideration for others, and how the heck can we commit crimes against others if we feel consideration?..." The biker will simply say, "Arrg! What's that crap you're wearing?"

My brother once wore the uniform of a Boy Scout. He was a clean-cut wholesome youth until he went away to university. He came home at Christmas with (gasp!) long hair! And a purple puffy shirt! How Mom used to iron that shirt so vigorously, hoping it would wear out. But this was back in the age of perma-press and miracle fabrics. Mom never despaired of my brother's appearance. She knew that a well brought up considerate kid might become a liberal, but never a sinner. I suppose parents back then comforted each other with a variety of jokes, one of which could have gone (my version): a kid comes home the first Christmas and he's a communist, next year a socialist, next year a liberal, and in his final year a conservative... Perhaps when orthodox parents warn that attending university may lead to cigarettes and sex, what they secretly mean is: may lead to freedom of thought. No questions allowed!


While a small rigid subculture could be threatened when a young adult learns to "compare and contrast" I don't think a big flexible culture can be harmed. Take Jade Snow Wong, the author of Fifth Chinese Daughter. After graduating university, as her book makes clear, her culture remained inspirational although imperfect. One day in class Jade sat up straight when she heard a teacher say something like, "Once children were economic assets, but now we raise them for the joy of it." Suddenly her family/culture's repetition of "Be obedient" was put into context. As a French student, Jackie Mousseau, once told me, "The truth shall set you free...but first it shall make you miserable."

During school I talked to many students, French and otherwise, because in my Introduction to Psychology textbook (by Zimbardo) I had read that only half of your education at school comes from textbooks, the other half comes from teachers and other students. Back in my day, of course, the classes were much smaller in size making it easier to learn how to discuss, but still—Today's students, Muslim or otherwise, have no excuse not to at least make an effort. If you can't ask "meaning of life" questions by yourself then go listen to others. I remember how at two different student parties, Friday and Saturday, I quietly listened to a discussion of "does joy in life equal sad?" You just won't get that topic in the working world, nor ones like, "Does truth make you miserable?" or, "Are farm kids more obedient?" or, "If we want computer designers (nerds) in a company to be more creative, then should they be allowed to wear pink T-shirts and jeans rather than a proper dark business suit?" In the business world this last question could be intuitively answered if you had been awake back in university. Questions are allowed!


At this point in my thinking I am beginning to answer my opening question: why the Muslim student silence? I'm almost ready to approach the question head on. If the silence is worldwide then I guess I can't blame local students, but what I can do is feel hope. Perhaps schools overseas are not as liberal as ours, while here the schools are embedded in a culture of growth, not status quo. Here is where the silence will first be broken. I dimly recall anthropologist Margaret Mead writing that Americans change faster than the rest of the world because of American youth. John-boy will say, "Dad, let's get one of those newfangled steam tractors." Dad will reply, "In the old country my father and his father found horses were good enough..." but eventually John-boy will get his dad to try a tractor. I remember visiting a college girl's house when her parents were not home. Joyce Gee was Chinese; the tableware was western. She explained that her brother had got her parents to change tableware just last year.

Her's another meaning of life topic: Does having a Muslim religion mean you are part of a culture, or a rigid subculture? For now, perhaps the latter is true. If a Muslim religious leader writes in my local newspaper forum (this happened) to say that Muslims here in Canada are hard done by, well, I don't expect a student to come home that afternoon and say otherwise. Not: "Mom, I've been talking with students, including sociology majors, and they say that we Muslims are treated no worse than folks from France or China."

(Meaning of life)

A local Muslim leader might write in to echo the words of the Egyptian ambassador, (Canwest news service, Ottawa, March 9, 2007)"...because, honestly, if you look at things from a world perspective, it is as if Muslims or Islam are under attack and under siege around the world." ...For now, it's as if no one is coming home to refute such propaganda. Not: "Dad, I've been talking to students and I can assure you that even science majors, even after 9/11, are barely aware that there are non Arab Muslim nations, and can barely name any of them. So if there's a conspiracy against Islam then our nation's best and brightest youth have somehow been left in the dark."

Perhaps Muslim students don't trust their parents enough to talk to them. After all, students in my youth were known to say, "Don't trust the establishment!" and "Don't trust anyone over 30!" Or perhaps they don't trust their longhaired idealistic save-the-whales fellow students. Either way, I have hope. I believe in youth. I believe candles will soon be lit here in North America that will go on to light the world.

Sean Crawford
losing my hair but trying not to lose my open-mindedness
posted to the net Spring 2008.12

Footnotes regarding American youth:

~ in 1945 U.S. infantryman Raymond Gantter, while fighting through Germany, speculated that Germans wanted to mold their children into German traditions while "Americans, having no real tradition, see their children not as carbon copies of themselves, but as the potentials of something better. Americans are secretly humble before the promise of thier children, Germans are not." (p316 of Roll Me Over)

~ You may recall Bill Cosby "doing an Art Linkletter" by interviewering kids on "Kids say the darndest things." I remember watching Art's original show in black and white. This was before transistors and "portable TVs," back when families only had one TV set. Back in the 'fifties Art learned that foreign kids were different. If he asked, "How would you change your father?" a U.S. kid might gleefully say, "I'd make it so that he would watch Zorro instead of wrestling matches." A foreign child would freeze or say blankly, "Change my father?"

~ As noted in my Atrocities (May 2011) essay the average army age was 26; Gantter was a 30 year old private when he first went into battle. He was a junior and senior NCO (noncommissioned officer) before being awarded a silver star and a battlefield commission. As a tough fighting man, with a wife and kids back in the states, he wrote, "Perhaps we baby our children too much, but I like it that way." (p316)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Learning to be Nice

She was one of those happily created beings who please without effort, make friends everywhere, and take life so gracefully and easily that less fortunate souls are tempted to believe that such are born under a lucky star.
Louisa May Alcott

Or is it luck?...

One of my joys in life, as a middle aged man, is going up to Edmonton, the city I first knew in my sunny youth back when I served with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. (At Griesbach Barracks) There I check into a well-known very-cheap hotel for a few days, one with the toilets and showers down the hall: The sort of place where you both pay a key deposit and drop off your key every time you leave the building; a place where some of your poor fellow guests find their lives challenging, and in turn they present challenges to the front desk staff. Of course, they present few problems to a former soldier.

The last time I checked in and trudged up the stairs I overheard the staff going into the back and saying, “…comes up from Calgary, a nice guy.” Given some of the challenges the staff faced, “a nice guy” must have been a nice relief. No wonder the staff always remember me and sometimes tell me what shift they are working.

I started pondering “being nice” a month ago, after my weekly toastmasters meeting. (For public speaking) At my club we always start with a brief “introduction question.” The chairman for the night was a man my age who likes to lead bike tours. He asked us each to think, “What are you known for?” In his case, he was known for biking everywhere, even to work.

That night I answered, “Everyone knows I go to Tim Hortons,” (donut franchise) adding “At the place I go to before work on weekdays, they always bring me a cup one size larger than I pay for; at the place I go to before sunrise on weekends, they often start me off with a free coffee.” When someone said later she wanted to copy my donut shop success I realized that no, she couldn’t. Not unless she was known there for being nice. When once I ran into a couple of young servers at another town, away from their home, they were so pleased to see me, adding that “you are our favorite customer, we like how you leave magazines for us to read.” The magazine idea I learned from my brother Gord.

It was my brother Rob, an owner-operator of a delivery truck, who role modeled for me how a driver could be sociable with customers and loading dock crew. Come to think of it, everyone in my family is social: we’re Irish. (And British)

It’s obvious, surely, that “being sociable” is good for anyone in the business world, not just salespersons. As for traveling salesmen, I am intrigued by how back in the days when they were numerous, known as drummers, they were known for socializing with each other during evenings in the saloon, evenings of rousing good cheer. There was a subtle reason: Being unable to obtain peer status from the size of their houses and possessions back home, drummers earned their group’s respect through their ability to tell jokes and stories, to sing and converse… In more recent times, in contrast, we have that sympathetic Norman Rockwell painting of the lone salesman on his hotel bed playing solitaire.

In my brother’s case, I imagine being social could mean, say, one extra delivery trip per day because the various warehouse crews might be just a little quicker and more efficient for him. On the other hand, I don’t think he would get any free coffee at the docks or donut shops: There is a broad difference between “sociable” and “nice.” The term “sociable,” at first, makes me think narrowly of salesmen, pretty girls and partygoers. “Nice” is for everyone: something shy people and wallflowers could aspire to master. No doubt Simon Peter was loud and sociable—it was his quiet brother Andrew who was nice enough to find the boy with the loaves and fishes.

Can these traits be learned? I would hope so. Role modeling would work best, I think. As for specifically being social, there is lots of instruction available: I often see books and magazine articles such as “How to Talk to Anyone.” As for my concern of the week, ‘learning to be nice,’ I have only seen one book on this common sense trait, but one is all you need: I am thinking of a man who during the Great Depression ran a night school class on public speaking, back when no such book had ever been written: Dale Carnegie. From both his formal research and from his students came the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. If you haven’t read it yet—what are you waiting for?

One scene in the book is instructive. Dale “made the day” of an elevator operator by complimenting the man on his fine head of hair. When Dale reported this to his night class one of Dale’s students asked, “What did you want to get out of him?”

Dale exploded “What did I want to get—! … If your soul is so shriveled—! …” It’s hard to imagine any benefit the elevator operator could confer on Dale. Being nice is not for a clear and immediate gain—Call it a lifestyle choice.

When it comes to “trying too hard,” I think such error is more likely for “being sociable” than for “being nice.” A big difference between the two could be in how you set your intention: One is more ‘what do I want’, one is more ‘how can I help.’ Note the modifier “more.” Motives aren’t pure: We mortals will always have healthy measure of self-interest, more or less. None of us are saints—not me, no sir.

I guess my saintly friend Sue S. had thought she was doing the right thing. I first met Sue in a night class for people who already had jobs but were ready for a career change. (I was military, at the old Currie Barracks here in Calgary) A few years later we reconnected when I joined the university newspaper volunteer staff. Seeing her name and phone number in the staff listing I innocently gave her a call. I got as far as saying, “…Uh…Let’s see, uh—” (“—Hi Sean!”) when she happily guessed whom I was. Looking back, I suppose I was nice enough that she didn’t wonder if I was a stalker. Ah, those eager awkward student days. One day Sue confided to me how she was happy to have a new behavior: No longer was she entering each class after first putting a little smile on her face. I was happy for her.

Down the years I’ve had two other women say, “I’m not nice.” I didn’t get it. I never explored what they meant by that—we weren’t quite nice and intimate enough—but I think now, feminist style, they were rejecting any silly sex-role thing, just like Sue did.

For my part, it feels right to be a nice guy. On my good days, I like how my shyness is reduced. As I said in another essay, (Man and Girl, July 2013) I try to remember my mantra, “Because I am afraid to love, you are alone…” When I’m being less shy, because my mind is on being more helpful, I feel straight and healthy: Living as God intended.

My childhood hero, General Sir Baden-Powell, encouraged his Boy Scouts to do a good turn every day. He once wrote a note for someone as a take away at the end of an interview: (from memory) “Some think the secret of happiness is to receive, others know the secret is to give.” That’s it. An old man once said his secret was he tried to live so that no one came away feeling worse for having met him. That’s it too. Dale Carnegie wrote, “I am talking about a new way of life.” Yes.

It seems to me—Oh, how awful when I lapse into having a “dog in the manger” day! It seems to me, “learning to be nice” is a matter of setting my intention…  Everyone I meet during their working hours is, by definition, only there because they have to be—and I can help ease their path As for the ones who are not at work, well, everyone is fighting a silent battle, without flags or bands—and I can help.

I can extend fellowship, commiserate along the trail, and rejoice with them in pointing out the wonders of the world. It’s too easy for tired hikers to just look down at their feet. I find a side benefit for myself: By having a little focus, a little wondering, about what would brighten someone else’s day… I have to become aware of other people’s concerns… while in turn becoming increasingly aware of what brightens my own day. And awareness steers action.

I’m sure awareness will not automatically seep in, not without intention. I am reminded of a college assignment where we had to write a short piece with dialogue. Believe it or not, even though I had been reading for years, I had to reach under my bed for an old Louis L’Amour so that for the first time I could see how to write dialogue. A classmate, Joan, presumably had no fiction at home: She ended up inventing her own punctuation for dialogue! (Oh, it was crude!) Looking back, I wonder how many of us go through our years without ever setting an intention of seeing the concerns of others, without ever learning how to be nice. The golden rule can only take you as far as your knowledge goes. As Dale Carnegie said, “I am talking about a new way of life.”

I suppose setting one’s intention daily would be matched by checking yourself daily to see how your intention turned out.
Softly falls the light of day,
as the campfire fades away
Silently each Scout should ask,
‘have I done my daily task?’
In time, with concerted effort, a nice habit can become a new way of being… Such a soft, easy path to joy.

Sean Crawford
A civilian on the lone prairie
As robins nestle into shrubbery to escape the constant snowfall
April 2013
~In Calgary only the Burns building, by the Olympic Plaza, still has elevator operators.
~I may have combined two separate Dale Carnegie stories—It’s been a decade since I read him last.