Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banking With Saint Murphy

Headnote for US Americans: “cheque” is the precise French, British and Canadian word for “bank check.”

Sometimes I laugh—we may indeed be living in a “complex society,” but hey—you just can’t take it too seriously…

Recently I was privileged to finally fork out for my membership in a writer’s group in a community center. When I first tried, “they” had wanted me to put my crinkly cash in an envelope, scribble an explanation of what it was for, and then slip it under a door of an office that served several groups. I was hesitant—worried about Murphy’s Law… This time around it was better: an official tabletop mail box with a dedicated slot for each group, and—hurray!—an “Official Application Form” stating: “just staple a cheque.” I thought, “OK, that’s more like it.”

The only stapler nearby was a huge big massive thing, with a faded note on the handle: “This is a heavy-duty stapler.” I appreciated the warning: Clearly, it fired clips the size of a barbed wire fence post staple. I asked the administrative assistant, what we used to call a “secretary,” for help, as her own little office stapler was far beyond my reach. So she came over holding her stapler but instead of handing it to me… click!” —Murphy’ law!... stapled right across—obscuring—the little dollar numbers on my personal cheque! Now what? ... I quietly stuck my application through the mail slot. “Never criticize a volunteer” is my motto, so I didn’t let on that her “help” had been not-so-helpful.

Besides, I knew something: A cheque is not too serious, not too sacred, and certainly not “carved in stone.” In fact, you could scratch out a cheque on a piece of birch bark if you wanted to—and it would be perfectly legal. Honestly!

I am reminded of a splendid used bookstore, far from any banks or bank machines, out near the stampede grounds. One Saturday afternoon the old owner called me up, and I rushed on down. I had a standing order for any turn-of-the-century books by Richard Harding Davis, and they’d just gotten a full bag in from the city of Edmonton, gateway to the Klondike. Yahoo!

I bussed straight down, arriving late in the day, near closing, with insufficient time to walk a few blocks to any bank machine and back. Unfortunately on that day I must have forgotten to bring my money. Or else, more likely, I hadn’t brought enough cash, for those antique 1899 books cost me a day’s pay. Back in those days, back when I didn’t own a wallet, while I would never forget to stuff some cash into my jeans pocket, I often forgot to include my bankbook. How often? The tellers had finally resorted to putting my name and account number on a page under the glass along the counter. Hey, I wasn’t the only name on that page! I had finally ended up memorizing my number.

So there I was in the bookstore, without enough money, but with my bank account number memorized. I said “memorized” to my fellow book lover, adding that, if any address was needed, I knew which block my bank was on. The storeowner was delighted; we smiled in good fellowship and triumph. He said he’d find some foolscap in his desk and cut it into a convenient cheque size. (We had no birch bark) As the old capitalist was rummaging around for paper he came across a blank cheque—not a personal cheque, meaning: Not one with a discrete computer code along the bottom that would cause his own personal account to be debited. So we used the old blank one, filling in my memorized number. And yes, the cheque went through just fine.

Years later I told this story at Mount Royal College as we were discussing bureaucracy. My classmates got all distracted, saying, “But you can’t write a cheque on foolscap!” “Why, sure you can,” I said. “It’s not like cheques are printed by the government Bank of Canada!” The point of my story, that day in class, was that a bureaucrat would not have taken the trouble to go rummaging for foolscap. Bureaucrats are motivated by wanting to be comfortable: For them comfort is serious, sacred, all but set in stone.

Meanwhile, out in the business world, managers are motivated by wanting results. In the working world you don’t ask for excuses as to why you can’t do something, you look for ways to get things done. And you impress this on your support staff, such as your company lawyer. Pity the lawyers: I am told they are notoriously trained only in finding problems. As for the bureaucrats, they live in a cozy comfortable world off on their own somewhere… Don’t expect too much from them.

I realize it’s all too easy to take banks all too seriously. Truly, I don’t think anyone ever forgets hearing Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock’s classic piece on timidly getting his first ever bank account. We mortals can sure relate, eh?

As for the banks … they’re just not sacred. I am reminded of the time I was indulging in petty larceny as the treasurer for my Toastmasters club. In fact, knowing my limitations, I had insisted that, for withdrawals, all of our account cheques would require two signatures, called “double signing authority.” No, I’m not larceny challenged—math challenged, maybe—I just have a healthy respect for Murphy’s Law. Dues time came around. While half of us paid with cash, half of us paid our dues using cheques. Of the latter, unfortunately, while half of them used our specific club’s legal name, —the name on our bank account—the other half, under the mercy of Saint Murphy, wrote their cheques out to “Toastmasters.” Now what?

Like any good treasurer, I had sat down with my bank manager when I first took over the club account. So back to the manager. “Hello Sean,” she said. “… You can see,” I said, “how the club members meant to write their cheques out to our club. As for “Toastmasters,” I continued, “I only write a cheque to “Toastmasters” twice a year when I send our club dues down to California.” She looked over my papers, nodded, and said all the cheques would go into my club’s coffers…. Yahoo!

As we go through life, having our fun by reading Stephen Leacock's "My financial career," let’s remember that cheques and bank managers and bureaucrats are all a means to an end. That’s all, nothing too serious.

Sean Crawford
Stampede City,
Province of Alberta,
In her majesty’s dominion of Canada
In the best part of North America

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Joy of Patronizing

So what’s wrong with a little patronizing between friends?

Folks not my friends would say patronizing is wrong indeed. Recently I came across the “p-word” while reading Confessions of a Public Speaker by one of my favorite essayist-public speakers, Scott Berkun.

Berkun noted that when Dale Carnegie, back during the Great Depression, published his patronizing classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, the critics complained. They said the book wasn’t new: It was full of very old clichés and advice. As for Carnegie, he was confident his book deserved to be a best-seller: He was exploring the concepts of his book with the businessmen he was teaching at his night class in public speaking —even though yes, the old “patronizing” advice dated back to classical times. Once, the story goes, after freely choosing to address a hostile crowd of publishers, editors and advertising men, Carnegie “dodged the bullet” with his audience by being honest, saying to the critics “…Of course I deal with the obvious…—because the obvious is what people need to be told.” And he humbly admitted he was quoting the words of great men. He received a loud round of applause. (P. 138 of Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker)

It was honest Berkun who used the term “patronizing.” Berkun said his work in public speaking often involves telling people things they already know, or once knew and have forgotten. Berkun wrote that he dared not disclose this to his audience because it would, in his words, “be patronizing.” (P. 138) In fairness, he added, “Yet I know old ideas said well enough have surprising power in a world where everyone obsesses about what’s new.”

Judging by Carnegie’s critics, Berkun would be correct to avoid disclosing the truth, but I just don’t know. Maybe it’s a matter of degree. I guess Berkun can judge fellows from the big city: he is from New York himself. In contrast, I am from the Alberta prairie, a dry fertile land, where everybody I know buys their sweet corn from the fields around the town of Taber: You may call me corny for saying this, but I do live in the corn belt and what I say is: Verily, I don’t mind being patronized. And I don’t think my neighbors do either. I’m still chuckling over the time a young man from the faculty of agriculture came by and offered to give some knowledge to an old farmer. The farmer smiled and said kindly, “I already know twice as much about farming as I’m now putting into practice.”

Maybe we acquire a healthy sense of humor about “being patronized” as we age. I’ve noticed how groups of smiling satisfied seniors, when getting onto the Light Rail Transit (A bus-like train within city limits) don’t hesitate to point out to each other where to sit—something groups of uptight teens never do.

Like Berkun and Carnegie, I know a lot about public speaking: I’m a member of Toastmasters International. This is a worldwide organization of weekly clubs, based in (where else?) California, for learning “public speaking and leadership.” My club meets at the back of UnityChurch every week—Here in the Bible belt we have many churches. Believing in Toastmasters, I encourage folks to go be a guest at any club by telling them, to their amusement, that a Toastmasters meeting is almost as much fun as an evening at home watching Star Trek, “but of course you can’t watch Star Trek every night.”

At my club, remembering Berkun’s avoidance of the p-word, how much responsibility should I take for my friends at Toastmasters being uncomfortable with “being patronized” by me? My answer is: None. They are adults, and they can handle their own discomfort. I stand before them not pure and homogenized, but as a man with a level of cream. At one level, I know they know that I know how they know … A sense of humor helps. And it helps, as Dale Carnegie would approve, to mind the don’ts: I don’t do self-righteous, don’t blame, don’t get angry with them, and I don’t purely think they have never known what I am telling them.

So much for the don’ts. As for the do’s, Carnegie would say the way to have a friend is to be a friend. So as I am “speaking the facts,” and reminding people of the obvious, I am also, at one level, admitting that I’m forgetful too—and all too human. “Admitting stuff” is what friends do. At another level I semi-consciously project that I like my audience, my fellow mid-westerners. When I do a speech for my club-members, I “have something to say” which I think is important for them... and for me too, because “you learn best by teaching” and, I admit, that’s the way I remember best too. And of course, regardless of whether I’m being paid, at a visible level I enjoy being there. As I see it, public speaking is classed with the performing arts, where customers never want to feel you are merely “working.” At the risk of patronizing, my advice is: Speak with joy, because grimly going through the motions is only good for the drafted minions of Darth Vader—or for your day job.

I believe all of us are forgetful. Every year the “check out counter” magazines run features on things like home fire safety, setting goals, nutrition, budgeting and how colors can be coordinated for better homes and clothing. Maybe I was once a “fashion challenged nerd,” but I would hope by now I finally know the common advice in magazines, or at least I know “twice as much as I’m putting into practice” but still, it’s nice to regularly see these magazine features in print because I realize there are new babies being born everyday who don’t know. Besides, judging by our actions, we forget… Sometimes I wonder: Will I ever, once and for all, learn to exercise a little more and procrastinate much less? Until I do, there will always be room for more features about such things—And ones on clutter, too.

Being young at heart, although in late middle age, I still like to innocently hope that maybe one day I’ll become wise. Maybe.

Wisdom for me, like courage, seems especially scarce at 3:00 a.m., the hour of the wolf, “when all I can do is lie awake thinking about how my life could have gone but didn’t—and then pour a glass of whiskey, to keep the wolf on the other side of the door…”

Unlike wolves and nature, people are complex. Even a lifetime is not enough to plumb the depths of their conflicted motivations and flaws. By comparison, it’s super-easy to learn straightforward disciplines like mathematics or psychology. Let’s face it: There will always be a place for literature and classic stage plays. We will re-read the old classics, and re-experience the same plays, because of the lessons: so hard to retain and so easy to forget. Maybe some modern critics, maybe to avoid feeling patronized, will say the latest play has new improved props and lighting, or a new interpretation by a new director. Ah, vanity. Under the sun, vanity is as old as the river Jordan.

As for me, nobody needs to  “avoid patronizing me” by claiming anything is new. Preach me the old sermons… I need to sing the carols again.

Sean Crawford
As leaves turn yellow, curl and drop
Calgary 2013
~I guess carol means lesson, as in a preacher reading at a church service saying, “Here ends the second carol.” Hence the title of a short story by Charles Dickens.

~I liked Confessions of Public Speaker, Scott Berkun, O’Reilly, 2009

~I wrote of Dale Carnegie in my essay  Learning to Be Nice, archived May 2013.

~The story of the “hour of the wolf,” using vodka—and then three more little glasses in case the wolf has brought her cubs—is a memory of her Russian uncle, related by Susan Ivanova on the space station Babylon-5, the first ever “five year novel” on TV, by JM Straczynski.

~You meet the nicest people at Toastmasters; of course I advise new guests to try out three different clubs before choosing one to join. My own club includes a single mother, Leanne, who owns every adventure of the starship Voyager—the one with Captain Katherine Janeway—and she rations herself to one episode per night. Leanne’s “my kind of people.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pick Your Wartimes Well


The largest invisible minority here in Calgary is US citizens. And everyone’s 2013 day-timer has September 11 as Patriot Day. Go ahead: Walk into the bar on that day, notice a US American wearing his flag lapel pin, or perhaps a pin for his favorite sports team, and say, “Hi! How ’bout that War on Terror?...”

Of course he’d smile, as we North Americans are friendly folks, but I’m sure it would be a sheepish smile. Perhaps he would immediately change the topic: “Hey, how ’bout them Calgary Flames?” (Hockey) When it comes to “the war,” no one can give an answer to “How’s it going?”

What sort of war has such a lack of information, lack of energy level, lack of peer support—and, most important of all, such a lack of commitment? Strange. In a traditional short-term war people line up like iron filings to a magnet, everyone feeling quiet sure of what the next man feels. Such certainty comes from actions: songs with a strong beat, people putting up flags, and artists propagating posters and cartoons to show how horrible the enemy are. The bad guys may be shown as comical, but they must be shown as sinister. And all these actions are embedded in a magnetic field of commitment.

This new war effort, if indeed we are still at war, is different. No one has said “commitment.” Some people were saying right from 2001, remembering Nam, that the US people lacked “the right stuff” for a long drawn out war. You may recall how the North Vietnamese, besides saying Americans are all naïve, said Americans had no patience, and so all the Viet Cong had to do was keep not-losing until the Yankees went home. In fairness to the Yanks, they had merely designated the show as a non-war, as “a conflict,” where the People’s Republic of North Vietnam was not to be invaded, and South Vietnam was not to be occupied. Of the South: “It is their war and they have to win it.” If Nam been a “declared” war, with commitment unleashed, then the exit strategy, “victory” would have been clear and easy-to-agree-on. A “war” would have meant an easy to coordinate-and-work-towards goal. But of course it was the South’s war, and the US continually had to be careful not to help too much, and not to undermine the self-esteem and effectiveness of the Vietnamese. Well. Maybe winning a non-war is not possible; maybe trying to win one is as crazy and useless as trying to prove a negative.

I suppose President Bush knew about unclear non-wars. At least he tried for some focus, some clarity, by saying the US was only at war against “global reach” terror, as in crossing international borders, and, it logically follows, not against traditional civil war terror, such as the hill tribes all over the world, or the IRA just across the border of Ireland. Warring all over the world would be too much for a lonely super power.

Clearly, Bush was useless at rousing any war fever. Even more than during the “non-war” of Vietnam, at the end of the day, a homeland of free citizens bravely surrendered the “war” to the clumsy care of their civil servants. The people felt little need for a public “war effort.” As Joe Biden put it, “How urgent can this be if I tell you there is a great crises and, at the time we’re marching to war, I give the single largest tax cut in the history of the United States of America?”

And so I am only dimly surprised that hawk eyed journalists keep reporting that President Obama, as seasons merge into years, never utters the phrase, “War on Terror.” Hence my phrase above, “…if we are indeed still at war…” It’s as if our man in Washington doesn’t want to win. I can only speculate as to why. Here’s a mind-boggler: Perhaps former President Bush is not surprised by President Obama at all?

As for Obama, maybe, as a character in a Doonesbury cartoon once retorted, “The president is smarter than you think.” After all, in this world, anything we do, even if it is true and good and beautiful like mom’s apple pie, has effects both good and bad. (Love and calories)

Sometimes, in our history, declaring an “enemy,” at least in a non-war, can be more good than bad. Our puritan ancestors strived to keep busy and never surrender during their harsh struggle to survive on the frontier by saying, “The devil finds work for idle hands.” They’d ascribe any bad impulses to him. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” During my cold war childhood—we said “cold” because we all knew it was a competition, not a war—we rejoiced in our tendencies to be religious, free and creative because we didn’t want to be like the godless, gray and smothered communists, a people without modern art or jazz or modern dance.

Sometimes, during today’s war, we could rejoice in, say, our human rights, our common sense and our freedom from ancient hatreds, “let the dead bury the dead.” On the other hand, thinking of my friends in the bar, I’m sure it could be difficult for everyday people to grasp how the terrorists are embedded in lands where people less functional than the Soviets “don’t get” stuff like scientific evidence, “boundaries,” taking responsibility and a few other things that I would raise any child of mine to understand. And hey, —they don’t get rock’n roll, either. (Maybe the youth do, but their religious and secular leaders surely “don’t rock”)

The sheer hatred of those guys in the near east is so striking. For us, “…because the past is just a goodbye,” humanity is sanity. I have written before of how hatred, for us, is like a sober judge’s warrant for wiretapping: to be done only with a time limitation. (See Hatred and Canadian Muslims, archived October 2012) During my grandpa’s Great War a local German tailor found himself losing business; back then hatred meant renaming of the Canadian city of Berlin after a general: Kitchener. Shall I hate my local Arab tailor and dry cleaner? For the sake of victory? Maybe that would be more bad than good, and maybe racial profiling would be more good that bad. Or maybe we just don’t need this non-war.

During my father’s World War we referred to sauerkraut as liberty cabbage. This was as a means to the end of that war. But after more than a decade of War on Terror—more than a decade—I would not feel good—merely disgusted—about hating any relative of Bin Laden; nor, when I picture a sparkling oasis with palm trees in the Sahara desert, could I speak of “democracy dates” and “freedom figs.” Perhaps, then, the best reason for agreeing with President Obama never saying “war” is to shelter our children from never-ending hatred. Just look at how hatred has stained the shabby terror-exporting countries: There they teach permanent hatred to their children at an incredibly young age, smothering all future critical thinking. I'm sure this impacts their art and science. No wonder folks emigrate from Arabia and come over here.

Censoring your mind, keeping your world unclear, whether to protect and preserve your hatred or for any other reason, is like putting your arm in a sling: It just gets weaker. Recently on the CBC I heard a Canadian member of parliament. The MP said he understands the events in Syria and Egypt merit strong emotions, but still he deplores how his Arab-born friends and relatives are unclear thinkers, unable to clearly separate dear relatives from their opinions and stated positions. This has resulted in awfully bizarre accusations and hard feelings. Some relatives here in Canada, he said, are no longer speaking to each other.

The CBC recently ran an interview with a man, Ziad Doueiri, who had unconsciously lived with daily hatred all through his life. Finally, in just a short time, he shrugged hatred off his shoulders and knew the lightness of liberation. (Like some students do every year at western universities) Now he knows how debilitating hatred had been for him.

It turns out Doueiri was the director of a major motion picture, The Attack. Born in Lebanon, living in Paris, his film company needed to film in Israel, including in his film some Israeli-Jewish actors. He learned something: The actors, although Israeli, weren’t monsters. (Just as the actors of Shakespeare’s time, sympathetically making The Merchant of Venice, weren’t anti-Semitic) The director learned first hand that “people are people.” How nice.

Meanwhile, hatred in Lebanon had been permanently embedded since 1954 when they passed an obscure law against any such commercial intercourse with Israel. Such a convenient excuse, allowing hateful outraged Lebanese to reject the movie. How unfortunate. The Attack is tailor made for people of the east, a film that dramatically deals with the issue of having a marriage partner who… believes… in suicide bombing. But it will not be shown in Lebanon, nor, probably, anywhere in the east except for Israel. How sad—at least we over here can rejoice in our democratic belief that censorship is wrong, but still—how sad.

I like an excuse for rejoicing as much as any man; nevertheless, surely Obama is correct: Let’s treat terrorism as a capital offense, but let’s not ask all the public to all commit to all engage in a long and hate filled war. No asking, “What can I do for my country? ...” No war effort, such as efforts to learn about foreign countries, “for the duration” (of the war). The next step, it logically follows, would mean having the guts to formally call for transforming this not-so-great effort from wartime to peacetime. Not to be quitters or losers, but to formalize our “let the civil servants do it” reality.

One day, a few years from now, my friends will be drinking in the bar with the television news on. They won’t be surprised, nor will I, and neither will a former president Obama, to see a new president calling off the war.

Sean Crawford
August 2013
~ …Like some students do every year at western universities… Physicist Lawrence Krauss, during a talk at the University of Calgary said, “I hope that there’s some fundamental belief that you hold, and I hope that during your time at university you will realize that that fundamental belief is wrong.” (The Gauntlet, April 12, 2012, p. 17)

~For the Joe Biden quote see my essay Citizenship After 9/11, archived Sept 2012.

~I am humbly aware that taking responsibility to dream and teach is not easy. (I won't blame Arabs for failing) Here is the song, on Youtube, with lyrics, that inspired my title, called Teach Your Children.

~I wonder if US Americans realize how very lucky they are, compared to countries of the old world, not to have hatred, like radioactive fallout lingering on the land, after their civil war? Here are thoughts about a song by a Canadian, a song that reminds me of The Iliad because both sides are viewed without malice. (Joan Baez had the lyrics wrong in her recording, but she sings correctly now when she sings live)