Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Philosophical Traveler

When I posted my piece advising you to Say Hello to Strangers I said I was having an off day, and not saying hello to anyone. This time, visiting the city of Lethbridge, I had my chance to do it right.

Wearing my citizen-tourist hat, I drove south to the city after my writing class on Friday. You know, to a European, a town is “city” if it has a cathedral; to me on the prairies, a “city” is any town with a public bus service. I drove to an Econo-Lodge. An older couple from Montana was checking in—the lady’s first time in Canada—on their way up to see the open pit coal mine in Hinton. And Banff, too. I enthused about the big Japanese garden just down the road in Henderson Park. No flowers, just Buddhist landscaping. “After you leave, the real world looks ugly.” We talked a little about wartime civil internment camps; today, of course, we have only friendship for Japan. We shook hands, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning I awoke to possibilities: Maybe in the evening I could take in a discotheque; in the afternoon, perhaps, a golf course; for lunch, maybe, a gourmet meal at a museum—all the standard tourist things. But what about my humble morning? And my humble wallet? It could be cheaper and more rewarding to just go around saying “hello” to the natives.

I bustled about my room while enjoying the novelty of having a TV. At my usual “cowboy hotel” in Edmonton, the old Strathcona, there aren’t any television sets in the rooms. That’s OK by me: It suits my budget, and besides, I don’t do TV back at home: no cable, no rabbit ears, no peasant TV…It’s cheaper that way, leaving more time for writing. And so my idiot box is now a glorified DVD player… for watching my Japanese anime. (animation)

Just when I was ready to leave my room, I found the ending of an old Spencer Tracer war movie—maybe you’ve seen it—where he is a dead pilot, back as a ghost. Cool. I sat on the bed to watch. Next came another black-and-white war movie, Hell to Eternity. “Of course,” I thought, “in the US this is Memorial Day.” I remained sitting.

I just had to smile: Down in the U.S. the armed forces, and the police, enjoy the affection of the people, having a friendly distinct competence possible only in a democracy when the people and their civil servants are competent rather than corrupt. “Every nation gets the armed forces it deserves.” An immigrant from a country with poor citizenship said he knew Canada was a good country from his first arrival at the airport, because two passing RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) smiled and said, “Good morning.”

I had never heard of Hell to Eternity. I kept watching because the film starts out in that nostalgic time when my parents were young, the pre-war years. In the opening scene Hollywood-handsome delinquents use 1940’s slang. And then, how nice to see schoolboys with Japanese parents using slang so well, so melted in as “real” Americans. The hero, a feisty orphan, gets adopted into a Japanese family where the parents are learning English—of course he learns fluent Japanese. I just had to smile: America is where, with the exception of the American Indians, everybody can come and assimilate into any family, and meanwhile get assimilated into the national family, just fine. No one has to stand in front of a mirror and brainwash himself: it just comes natural. Like how the hero, after enlisting, naturally adopts the body language, attitudes and reactions of a US Marine. One year you naturally believe in arranged marriages; another year you easily believe in marrying for love, and, if you attend a local mosque, that Islam means peace.

In LA, before air conditioning, the hero is with a Japanese-looking girl in an open convertible when the fellows in the next convertible have their radio on: It is “a day that will live forever in infamy.” War. To paraphrase what the Bible says about the Lord, “Thou shalt hate the enemy with all thy heart and all thy soul.” Obviously, during strenuous war-time hatred, it is just not done for Asian-Americans to serve in the Pacific Theatre of War, so the hero’s brothers go off to fight in Italy; the hero fights the Japanese on Saipan; their parents are interned far inland.

It’s a queer coincidence how the hero is of Italian background, for my high school was half Italian, half Asian. When I left home as a teenager to attend school alone, I naturally found parental-figure Asians, and I naturally gravitated to finding a home in the armed forces.  So I related to the movie… I kept watching a little longer, and then a little longer; eventually I dialed “O” and got the front desk. “I’m watching a Turner Classic Movie. Can I stay another hour?” And I did, for another $15.00. Hey, it’s the same price as a movie and extra popcorn downtown. Besides, we tourists like to see movies.

Eventually, out in the bright sunshine, I found myself on a path in Henderson Park. A fixed wing aircraft was droning over the park, banking to vertical, again and again. A mature man with a stroller was watching. I asked, “Friend of yours?” Small world: The stranger turned out to be a pilot, guessing at the make of the aircraft. He said, “He sure looks like he’s having fun.” His partner came up and took the stroller, and a lady using an electric scooter came up and we three talked about the weather and she knew Calgary politics. I said, “I can’t believe you have full leaves on the trees! And blossoms too! Up in Calgary the trees are only still budding!” I told the strangers I was in town to go to a Japanese kitchen/gift store downtown—they knew the one—to find out how to cook my brown rice better. And sure enough—small world—the nice man gave me a blow-by-blow explanation of how to cook brown rice, and told me where in Safeway to find the fluffiest brown rice of all. (Called something like buzzmat) Good thing I talk to strangers.

Best of all, when I told the man I was in a good mood from seeing Hell to Eternity, he knew the movie and said it was well known. That was nice to hear. For most of my childhood we had no TV, so maybe I had missed seeing it on seeing the Late Show.

Soon I was striding down a long arrow straight path to the Japanese garden wall: The approach is part of the experience. At the gateway I met two Japanese young men. One was just finished high school in Japan, only a little older than I had been, when I was in a strange and urban land. The older man, cheerful and expressive, with dyed brown hair, was here for the local university. I’m glad I conversed, because, after I photographed them, the quiet younger guy offered to take my picture posing with his friend: how thoughtful, how wonderful, as I never take pictures of myself. In Japan, I know, they always take group pictures twice so the person with the camera is included too.

The garden meditation path includes passing through a Japanese house constructed of beautifully fitted wood. No nails. Two Lethbridge young ladies in Kimonos talked to me. Along the walls were a few dolls behind glass, of porcelain faces and exquisite fabric. Know what? When I was the age of those girls, I told them, I had bought one of the dolls being displayed, as a teenager, in the tourist area, “gas town” in Vancouver. It had belonged to one of the sales staff. I remember I couldn’t buy the velvet display stand, only the doll. Who knew it would be worth so much? (Later it cracked, later I lost it during one of my moves)

Later, back down the straight long path, back at the gift shop, I conversed with a young lady from Japan. She exclaimed and pointed to my Totoro ball cap! We conversed about anime, and she darted to a book with lots of color pictures and flipped the pages, to find good anime to show me. The book is Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential subtitled How Teenage Girls Made a Nation Cool. Yes, I bought the book, feeling very avuncular.

Regrets? Two: Next time I’ll have memorized the titles of anime I like, as I really blanked out when I was asked. And I regret I didn’t ask the university student whether he was between semesters or yet to start, so I could warn him: Universities here are hard compared to Japan. (Where high school is very hard) As a graduate myself, I could share a few tricks.

You probably don’t want to hear whether I golfed or had a gourmet meal. (No and no) The important thing, in my eyes, is that I got back to practicing what I preach: talking to strangers.

Now to put on my citizen-philosopher hat, considering Hell to Eternity: I thought, for 1950’s Hollywood, there was good acknowledgement of sexuality, with ladies dancing burlesque in their apartment; splendid scene cutting; and more American bodies (except for maybe the opposed beach landing) than in Saving Private Ryan—why? Are citizens of today unable to face war? In the horribly restful silence after battle, the hero walks in a field among American and Japanese bodies… The sergeant is played by David Janzen, who went on to make a lot of people happy playing The Fugitive in the TV series. (Later a movie starring Harrison Ford) I am relieved to realize U.S. civilians, at least as late as 1960, are aware that Japanese women and children would leap to their deaths rather than be captured. Someone tells the hero to lower his rifle, advising you can’t stop suicide with violence. But you can talk.

I am relieved because I was feeling a little guilty, some essays back, when I revealed the Saipan suicides, and, in the Japanese comic Barefoot Gen, an Okinawa class of students and their teacher killing themselves with a hand grenade. I don’t feel I can judge what my generation is able to face. This spring most people initially couldn’t bear to guess that “masked troops without insignia” would, if unopposed, invade, occupy and annex the Crimea; others couldn’t believe that some American Muslims, “deniers,” would never talk to overseas Muslims, to convert them away from believing Islam means violence.

As a happy humble traveler I enjoy our friendly continent, good for citizens and tourists. I hope you, with or without much money, can manage to travel too.

Sean Crawford
(Hurray, now the trees have full leaves, as spring becomes summer!)

~When the teen hero of Robert Heinlein’s young adult novel finds himself a displaced person, Between Planets, (Book title) then, as the narrator knows, but as the young man himself is unconscious of, he seeks out a father figure from another race: …a talking dragon.

~For being newly amongst urban Asians, back when I thought in terms of “belonging,” not “assimilation,” see my essay Young Bombers Longing to Belong, archived November 2013.

~When my parents were young the saying was, “Scratch a Russian, find a Tartar.” (under the scratch) Perhaps the 21st century version will be, “Scratch a Russian, find a communist.”

~A slogan I “quoted” above is actually a paraphrase of a wartime observation. Yes the fascists bombed both London and Pearl Harbor before we bombed Berlin and Tokyo; still, bombing them back was not easy. It could help to say, “Every country gets the government it deserves.” (is fit for)

~Speaking of not having a TV, I thought I would paste in a quote you read last week, from Stevey’s blog:
I can't promise you any satisfaction from the upward curve. You'll get better at a lot of things, and you'll have plenty of interesting insights. You may even get a better job, or build some software that makes you famous, or just have more fun at what you do. But you won't have much time for television. Something will have to give. We all have to choose how to play our time, and it's a zero-sum game.(Stevey Yegge, see footnote)


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Acid Blog, Stupid Yankee University

If you want to be on an upward curve, just make some time for it, and make it a habit. That's all there is to it. It doesn't matter if you're trying to get better at programming, or math, or fitness, or flying kites, or even humanity's Number One Fear, even worse than the fear of Death: public speaking. You just work your way up, a little at a time.
Stevey Yegge, (see footnote)

Hey, I feel entitled to be self-indulgent, because today is another milestone: Having just filled up another administrator’s page of 25 lines of weekly essay titles, it’s once again time to “take stock;” and, besides writing about a stupid university, I’m entitled to self-indulgently blog about little old me.

This Blog of Five Years
Believing, as Stevey does, in an “upward curve,” I am grimly satisfied that an old post is becoming far less controversial: I had written with acid in my ink that blogs were fading in popularity: Fading fast is the feverish activity where many folk would never read but only skim—“all the quicker to comment, my dear.” The fever has broken. Now, when people have time for cool second thoughts, I think it’s becoming clear that many blogs today are getting fewer “viewers” in total than they once had in “comments” alone. We now know those blogs were attracting “skimmers” who, to paraphrase good coaches and teachers, “only got out from the page what their eyes had skimmed in.” Too bad the fever has lasted so long, long past the time-window for getting thoughtful print-lovers engaged in the wonders of the Internet. Folks with library cards have turned away.

As for me, not writing for fevered brains, and not writing for Search Engine Optimization, SEO, means I don’t choose to put in links. Maybe I’m too stubborn; maybe, if only I would link, I could have been rich and famous years ago. LS (Laughing silently) Curiously, my old essay called No Links is Good Links is one of my popular ones. (Archived in July 2012)

I’ve been translated again, ten times, for my piece on inflation once being, according to the governments of Canada and the US, a “mystery.” (November 2013) Not now, of course. If you remember the ten lepers healed by Jesus, then you may guess how many of the ten Mexican translations resulted in a courtesy comment to me: None. Nada.
At the very top right of my blog site I have resorted to putting the first word, TRANSLATORS, in capital letters, continuing, “please consider leaving a comment so I don’t die of curiosity.” Sadly, no one ever does. Perhaps even translators are skimmers in a hurry. LS

After my last admin page, in my Taking Stock post, (November 2013) I noted Google was very seldom showing me any search terms for how people discovered my essays. Like a “financial institution” that scorns its individual depositors to favor big companies, Google seems to scorn the folks on Google’s own blog server, Blogspot, (Blogger) to favor keeping big companies in the dark about which search terms succeed.

Isn’t scorning your innocent na├»ve eager fans, well, a tad evil? LS.  … This month I increased my suspicions that Google’s old “don’t be evil” value is no longer part of their company culture. See Scott Berkun’s piece on corporate culture and the two comments by Daniel S. Wilkerson. (I have two comments too)   

This Page Of 25 Essays
If I care about prose blogs for reading, not skimming, then maybe it’s because I have the sensibilities of a nerd. And I’m not the only one: While it’s too early to tell, my last post in April looks like it’ll be a popular one: Me, a Closet Nerd is steadily, swiftly getting page hits. LOL and LS

Going by hit-count the most popular piece on this latest admin page by far is Words, Guys and Unisex. (January 2014) That’s gratifying since I don’t think the road to equal rights for women should be overgrown with underbrush and forgotten—never! As a fan of Star Trek Voyager, I enjoy gender-neutral language.

Going by “likes” my most popular post this page is Activists and Music Videos. (December 2013) That’s gratifying, both because I want to encourage “effective” activism in the next generation, and because while I wrote I was imagining young music lovers reading my essay as volunteers, not as teens trapped in school with their English teacher. Yet despite the “likes,” the hits are less than for my “Guys” one; while, speaking of music, my Troy, the Iliad and Music (January 2014) a tragic post I felt very moved to write, received only average readership.

Me, In the Last 25 Weeks
My parents continue to evade the insurance actuarial tables: Both are still alive, both in special housing—one in assisted living, one living in a pavilion of the general hospital—and both have some dementia. (Calling near mother’s day caused a new shock—like how the terminator, hanging up the phone, shocked the boy in T2) I’m driving out to their time zone next month to see them. My dad, who grew up in a family with nine children, called himself “the last of the rascals.” If ever I wanted to ask about his deceased siblings, well, that window is closed.

I’m still in a Toastmasters club. A member, Shawna, is sending the rest of us an e-mail about “gratitude” every morning for 21 mornings in a row. I myself know the concept, and two of my agency clients, who ask for me by name, have gratitude as a lifestyle choice too, but—my agency? I hope to give our “company culture” a nudge. Learning gratitude has been a nice part of my “upward curve.”

My diligence in writing, a sort of cross training that helps my public speaking, has paid off: In my Freefall writing group I’m doing well. How well? People sometimes remark about not wanting to read aloud right after me. A newcomer, Marie, went so far as to tell me she wouldn’t ever be sitting beside me. Small world: Marie told an old co-worker of mine about her group, who said, “That sounds like a group that Sean from my old workplace goes to.”
Marie replied, “He’s very helpful.”
“Oh, that’s Sean.”
So I’m glad I’ve developed a “help ethic” for work and for life. Too bad my essays labeled “work” get the fewest hits; because I think I have things worth saying to new workers.

I’m still learning various secrets of society, hidden in plain sight. Recently I learned from one of my favorite web essayists, Stevey, (Quoted at the top) how there are two sorts of people: The folks “on the upward curve” who keep learning, and the folks who are done with learning “and will coast” through life. Stevey’s concept comes in handy for his hiring interviews, considering his staff may someday have to learn things for their job. I’m glad how through my hobbies of Toastmasters and Freefall I have the privilege of being among folks who don’t want to coast through their lives, something I liked about my peers back in my armed forces days.
I can't promise you any satisfaction from the upward curve. You'll get better at a lot of things, and you'll have plenty of interesting insights. You may even get a better job, or build some software that makes you famous, or just have more fun at what you do. But you won't have much time for television. Something will have to give. We all have to choose how to play our time, and it's a zero-sum game.(Stevey Yegge, see footnote)
 During university my favorite people were the ones who, even if they were taking a career program, as I was, and even if they were to magically win the lottery, would still be determined to have their education adventure. Other students, I now realize, were not on the upward curve, and forever fighting gravity, they were only on campus “because I have to… to get a job.” How sad—do they skim? How sad.

A Stupid Yankee University
There is a university in Boston where every student has won a genetic lottery: They all have rich parents. At Brandeis, an expensive private university, they did a typical student thing: They invited a former refugee and Member of Parliament, writer Aayan Hirsi Ali, to speak and receive an honorary degree. Here, for young isolationist Ugly Americans, would be an adventure of new ideas. Last month, they did a very unstudent thing: They “disinvited” her. There would be no challenging their old conformity-high school view of the world, no, lest they feel uncomfortable or insulted in their conformity. Brandeis students, according to their actions, need to be sheltered. As Canadian Rex Murphy said on the CBC radio, “Is this a university or a daycare?”

How could an entire campus not be on the upward curve? And how, since Ali was a Muslim refugee offering intelligence for the American war on terror, could American students and staff want to engage in a “war without windows”? I think I found the answer when I wrote in my April nerd piece—here is a key excerpt:

QUOTE …In Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein the smart teen hero meets a very rich, very high status young lady of average I.Q. who is ignorant of science and other planets, while being well suited to her life-role as host of a manor. It seems to me that if our society values status, and puts a high status on being college educated, then the self-respecting solution for those who are rich and “supposed to be” high status is to attend expensive special colleges for the less gifted. UNQUOTE

Brandeis, then, could be a university for the rich and challenged. The upper class, as Orwell indirectly noted, have a vested interest in not developing their ability to listen; for my listening piece (May 2014) I held back a section on Brandeis; here it is now:

QUOTE I see a letter in the NY Times from a professor at Brandeis who thought Ali would be too disrespectful of Islam if she were allowed to speak. Maybe. How do you know? —I’ll bet my beer that both school presidents, the younger student council one and the older campus one, wouldn’t risk their comfort by telephoning Ali to ask about her respect.

In contrast: A professional stand up comedian, Lenny Bruce, was known to be very disrespectful of society, and with good reason, judging by his sad life story, and yet, despite Bruce having been arrested several times, a fellow professional expressed having no qualms about inviting Bruce to perform on his TV show, because he knew that Bruce was a professional who would suit his material to his television audience. I think a former Member of Parliament would be sane, despite death threats against her, and be respectful of parents and students in a formal graduation audience, though she might be less politically tactful when talking to a younger student-only audience.

As it happens, Brandeis is a private expensive university for rich people. Perhaps a paragraph regarding the rich girl in Citizen of the Galaxy, is relevant. (See above) Perhaps all the good enthusiastic professors, relishing enthusiastic peers, have avoided joining the self-hobbled faculty at Brandeis, leaving no one to speak up to advocate having a campus that's better than a daycare.

Then again, even established tenured professors, on any campus, could be awfully strange indeed: Some old profs still believe in communism. See my essay about the “Regina sixteen” in my essay of April 2010, Socialists Reject Soldiers. (The professors didn’t think orphans of dead soldiers deserved scholarships) UNQUOTE

Hey, thanks for letting me be self-indulgent: Nothing more about me until another 25 weeks.

Sean Crawford
(I saw a gnat flying around my car window: Spring is here!)

Yes, I know you can use a search engine, but I am linking to Stevey because you might miss out on finding he has two blogs. This one, where the top eight posts by page hits include why You Should Write Blogs, will link to his other one where his upward curve rant was posted on March 24 of 2006.

I hope I haven’t made Stevey sound too Puritan-nerd-serious. While indeed he watches less television, he also puts man-hours into video games. And everybody says his blog posts are funny.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Business Suits and Horsing Around

Businessmen have something in common with my artist friends: In the left-brain business world, as in the right-brain artistic world, we prize creativity. Partly because in business people are always searching for an edge—there will always be new trends and fashions for managing a company, and also for individuals wanting to get ahead. (I remember when “mentoring” was new) Having a competitive edge isn’t easy, as information travels at the speed-of-light. Companies end up looking as alike as cars.

Perhaps that is why the trend, of late, is towards encouraging a successful business “culture.” A cool culture may take longer to achieve than the latest hot management fad, but the effort gives a greater return on investment: A culture is harder for the competition to copy, and may steadily give results over a long term. And so we get the things like “don’t be evil” (Google) and “have insanely great design” (Apple) and express humor (Southwest Airlines).

At the intersection of corporate and individual, business and art, I have come to believe in creativity through “horsing around.” An obvious concept, of course, involving ideas already in the air such as brainstorm, don’t be uptight, and “in a good culture, managers lead to ensure a zone of safety for innovation.” Obvious, yes, but not the default.

Even middle-aged guys, including me, still need reminders of the obvious—and we always will. It was as a young college graduate that I was impressed with the value of horsing around. The government had come up with grant for summer employment for college students in theater: Probably it was to give them work experience immediately following graduation, I don’t remember. Their employer-leaders were the three founding members, and the only members, of Arete Comedy Troupe. These are the fellows I wrote about in my essay Arete Means Excellence (archived February 2014) Very excellent, very serious, very professional: You wouldn’t find better leaders.

As I’ve noted before, “acting” means performance, with a script, but “drama” is something else: it’s like engaging in finger scales, in the freedom of brainstorming, in the freedom through improvisation that develops “Concentration” and “Energy.” As my drama teacher Joyce Grey put it, if the curtain opens to show you sitting motionless on the floor of the stage with your back to the audience, people will know whether you are merely sitting, or sitting with Energy for what you are doing.

I wasn’t a performer myself. Half way through that summer; perhaps as a bystander, perhaps as a news reporter; I chatted with one of the serious leaders. He told me how the young people were getting anxious. The actors were being encouraged in horsing around, in drama, improvising all sorts of skits that summer, but soon the students began worrying, “When are we going to write the script?” They didn’t realize—or they lacked the faith—that all the improvised silly skits had a purpose; things would all come together: They would make a script using some of those skits. The resulting show, Streetlights, was so good that it would come back (revised) to be shown to the world as part of the Olympic Arts Festival for the Games of 1988, Calgary.

That day, knowing that I would have been one of the anxious young actors, I tried to internalize the older man’s culture by calling it “horsing around.” Sounds flippant, but I needed a strong term to keep me from sliding back into my naturally conservative mode. More comforting terms, pulled from the air, might be “Make lots of prototypes” or “Take extra pictures, then edit” or “Best be creative on your own, because you can’t trust focus groups” or “Get playful.” It’s obvious, yes; but no, it’s not the unconscious default. Not for me, not for most businessmen.

It’s been decades since I was in college. Last weekend, I was reminded of the value of creatively horsing around.

To improve my prose, I took a two-day course in poetry. Not in the mechanics of, say, using rhymes and harsh consonants, but in the Zen of composing. Our course was called Breathing Life Into Poetry, under the guidance of the formidable Sheri-D Wilson. (If you are reading this a year from now, you may find her on Youtube doing a Tedtalk) Physically, on Saturday, we merely spent the day sitting at a table at the Alexandra Writers Centre, but mentally—wow. That day we all went home tired. Absorbing new concepts is never easy. Being tired I wrote what I could, and went to crash out. I would try again in the morning.

On Sunday, refreshed, up at my usual early writing time, I reverted to my professional hat, my reliable journalist mode, where I always do my work on time and under word-budget. I crafted a nice, polished, pretty little poem. Embarrassed by last night’s effort, I took my new structured poem to the class. As it happened, I was seated beside Betty. She went first, and the poem Betty read aloud, so human and authentic, was so very long, and Sherri-D Wilson’s Zen-wise feedback so very extensive, that I thought, “Oops!” I told my peers I had better include my poem from last night, as my two poems added together would be only a fraction of the length of Betty’s poem.

My morning poem was, said Sheri-D, a “complete” poem. And we spent no time on it. None. But my human effort of the night before? One of my peers said she had to close her eyes as I read it aloud because the images were so beautiful. Well. I guess I learned something; I was reminded that innovation does not, initially, look like the polished things I am familiar with; there is a special value to horsing around.

In my tired evening I had written under the spell of Sheri-D Wilson from that day. She had sent us off with instructions to do a “sketch” or an image rather than a poem: I think she meant we probably wouldn’t have time to do a complete poem. I knew what a sketch was: My favorite web essayist, computer nerd millionaire Paul Graham, often writes that doing software, or essays, or drawings, require sketches.

Sheri-D’s advice included, “assume your own intelligence; don’t try to be smart; write without self judgment; have no outside voices…” In different words, that’s about what managers say when it’s time for their team to be creative.

In business, we know the value of growing a good culture, “here’s to the crazy ones,” (Apple) of nurturing the creative ones among us. Call it management 101. But can we do what we know? Can we walk the walk? Not always—For example, everyone in the business world can quickly learn how to have staff meetings that are efficient, effective and empowering. But then we just can’t bring ourselves to act on our new knowledge: Too many meetings are dysfunctional, too many people say they hate meetings. Obviously, we all need reminders for obvious things.

So let’s remind ourselves, and our teams, to set a safe place for creativity; let’s never try to be all starched and polished during the stages of brainstorming and creation. Let’s remember that innovations, like my night poem, can look too different at first.

…In my grandfather’s day, during the Great War, (“Great” as in Great Depression) Winston Churchill, frustrated, had to pull teeth trying to get the Royal Navy to do something creative, something obvious to us now: switch to using convoys. A few years ago, in the stairwell at the Lieutenant-Governor’s house (in Edmonton) I noticed an excellent oil painting—painted by Sir Winston. No doubt he must have found some comfort in periodically getting away from attempting to change navy culture and just being right-brain creative on his own.

I think I’ll take up poetry, for its own sake.

Sean Crawford
Province of Alberta
(Every night will be above freezing this week! A few trees have budded; Spring cometh!)

~Regarding meetings, I replaced someone as chairman of the board of directors of a for-profit and then our meetings continued as good as ever: I had been taught how to run meetings in my two-year community college. (Mount Royal) I get annoyed when people with four-year degrees in business or engineering can’t lead efficient meetings. Judging from the Internet, I think their problem is too much ego, rather than too little training.

~Darn, I can’t find where I explained drama. Well, a related piece is one on Creative Movement, archived February 2014

~Arete went through two names, for the longest time they were Arete Mime Troupe, then they were Arete Physical Comedy. I’ve combined both terms…. I wonder if any of my readers remember?   

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hadrian Meets the Homeless

“They should be shot.” With narrowed eyes, so said an idealistic pretty wife who attended our monthly Dialogue Group meeting at the community center. Her fellow idealists took exception to this, although none of them lived downtown as she did. She told us the homeless were nasty to her on the street.

The first city on this continent to cooperate and innovate to solve the problem of people being homeless will probably be my own: Other cities may be content to “make progress,” or try things “piecemeal,” but in my own city, a few years ago, we set a date: To end homelessness by 2018. So forget conspiracy theories of social workers needing to keep their jobs, forget human inertia in this complex world: Here in Calgary we might be redneck cowboys, but when we agree to a trail deadline—the herd arrives on time.

For other parts of the nation I have less confidence. As you know, while there have always been discrete hobo camps and men sleeping on park benches, the existence of “the homeless” burst on the scene during the same years we opened our eyes to the existence of the quietly growing demon of deficit, back when the United States declared war on drugs. I mean, of course, the years of President Ronald Reagan, when the homeless started appearing in Hollywood shows.

Since those years, I think citizens have learned the hard way, at some cost to our national self-confidence, that we can only tackle one major issue, one war, at a time. Certainly in my private life the principle holds true: I instinctively won’t tackle more than one major self-improvement goal at a time. If we never chose to declare ending homelessness to be our national priority, then that’s probably just as well. Our national life is too complex, the temptation to drift away from our goal and wimp out is too strong.

I find the numbers revealing: Today we have fewer rural folk and more urban folk than ever before. City land value is rising faster than my bank account can gather interest: The longer my money rests in the bank, the less real estate I can buy. Hence I took a deep breath and started payments for a humble condominium. For developers in my city, there is no longer enough ROI, Return On Investment—certainly not in the expensive city core—to build any new rental buildings. Each year as more people move into Calgary than move out, and as rental prices increase, we may talk a lot about needing new rental space, but the cold equations are clear: “It ain’t gonna happen.” Not by default. In fact, building owners are converting established apartment blocks into to common-ownership condominiums, selling the whole building to a cooperative of new suite owners. Land value is like a permanently rising tide. For the first time, an established trailer park on city property is being shut down, the people dispersed, as the tide floods out stable old neighborhoods and trailer homes float away into the mist. In other words, we have less and less “affordable housing.” 

I suppose economist Adam Smith would say the “invisible hand” of the market would adjust; wages would therefore rise to balance new land costs, and innovations would appear. Maybe. Theories don’t work perfectly, and the federal government has a vested interest in jostling the steady hand with the turbulence of inflation. (We know now that inflation is government controlled, meaning: inflation is created on purpose)

My still-feels-new condo will be my retirement home; some day I will rock on my porch but I won’t have a white picket fence. I used to. I spent much of my adult life in various shared houses with a white fence. Sometimes my young housemates would be only working folks; sometimes students were in the mix. Never student-only, always both genders. We had really swell times.

To me it’s obvious: If the cold equations mean less affordable housing then, besides new improved innovations, the home-seekers will also need to resort to a new-yet-old trick of sharing a roof. If sharing a bungalow or duplex is fine for workers, students and struggling new immigrants then why isn’t sharing fine for the struggling homeless? Maybe it is.

I don’t know, I’m no psychologist; but I do have a two thousand year old story to tell…

…The emperor Hadrian was popular with the Roman people. He was an old soldier, known as “the fighting emperor.” In his day, during the glory of Rome, vast arching aqueducts channeled water from far away hills. The economy of the time meant few Romans could have running water in their own homes, but they go could all go to the baths. Splendid places. Here among mosaic floors and marble pillars were communal baths the size of swimming pools. There were healers and massage tables too. One day the emperor was passing through and he noted a man rubbing his back up and down on the wall. Hadrian asked, “What are you doing?”
“I am a poor legion veteran; I can’t afford a massage, so I am rubbing my back on this wall.”
“A veteran! Then here is a bag of gold; go and buy all the massages you want.”

The next time Hadrian was passing through the baths he noticed a dozen men rubbing their backs on the wall, men glancing at him out the corners of their eyes.
“What are you fellows doing?”
“We are poor veterans; we can’t afford a massage.”
“Well then, share—you can massage each other!” And Hadrian got on with his business.

Sean Crawford
Two months before Stampede,
During a gentle all-day snowfall,
May 2014
(This Thursday morning, still dark, it’s at the freezing point, but all our days are now above zero. It will go below freezing again Saturday night, but I think that will be the last time—spring is almost here)

~A time-traveler from the 1970’s would be delighted to learn we had solved the mystery of inflation… and then be disgusted to learn inflation is caused by the government. At least, now that we know, inflation will never again be as awful as during the 1970’s. See my essay archived November 2013, Conspiracies and Inflation.

~During the Occupy Wall Street movement, here in Calgary the homeless had their own separate encampment. My essay Occupy Wall Street, Part One expands on how employment-challenged folks in shared houses could turn their lives around; archived December 2011.

~Speaking of encampment, in Britain many a town has the suffix caster, or chester, from the Latin word for camp. These towns grew up around legion camps. The town of Bath, of course, was named for a grand Roman bath. Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep out the Celts, stretched from sea to sea at roughly the border between England and Scotland. At regular intervals were mile houses and garrisons. During the dark ages peasants would use it as one wall of their sheep pen, and remove stones for building, without having a clue what the wall was for or what it had once been called. Sic Transit Gloria.