Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fools Do More With Less

Once in a while I suddenly remember some past naïve belief of mine, and then I wince, shake my head, and say: I guess we all retain a few strange beliefs for a while, like how a box of dry food bits retains some bigger pieces, or a few big trophy deer survive longer—it happens. Naïve beliefs are nothing to feel badly about.

I used to have strange beliefs around “effort,” just like that innocent horse, in the “children’s” novel Animal Farm, by George “Nineteen Eightyfour” Orwell, an obliging horse who would keep trying to work harder: past 100 percent effort, to 105, 110 and so forth. Today I feel contempt if a company spokesman proudly announces such mathematically impossible demands. Orwell’s poor horse kept agreeing to “do more with less.” Then I think, one day, he dropped dead in his harness.

Whenever I read that phrase, “more with less” in the newspaper I feel frustration and despair. Don’t people “get it”? The cold equations are clear: In global terms, we will never be as competitive as we were in the post-war years, before the sudden “mysterious” 1970’s inflation, an inflation that has since moderated but which, due to vested government interests, is never going to go away. Society will always have less… It logically follows that to say we can “do more,” or even do “the same,” is to say our parents and people of the Nineteen seventies were idiots. Not so. They liked maximum profits as much as we do, they were already doing about as well as they could.

It’s queer: If I had the strange belief that I should “try hard,” I also had the belief that I should be like a machine, trying equally hard every hour. In fact, I thought, if only I had enough willpower, I wouldn’t really need any time for recreation, I mean, don’t winners like Horatio Alger and Benjamin Franklin work hard long hours? Right up until bedtime? Perhaps it was to counter society’s lingering Puritanical beliefs, lingering past the Great Depression, that suddenly in the 1970’s biorhythm charts became popular. There were charts in the newspaper, right next to the horoscope.

Speaking of “lingering past the Great Depression,” here’s my pet peeve: Today’s generation has forgotten the Depression my poor parents lived through; I get irritated every time I read about some critic of architecture disparaging the “new exciting” buildings of my youth, a style they now call “brutalism.” Every city has a few of those modern concrete—not brick—blocky buildings. Well, in my day, some new buildings were, as they would say in today’s advertising, “Modern yet sensible.” “Daring, yet not costly.” “Economical yet space age.” We didn’t dare make the buildings anymore space age than they were, it just wouldn’t feel right: like putting wasteful amounts of food on the table, or like clothing fabric in China being wasted on collars and cuffs and ankles. — Somebody cried once from viewing my painting by Stephen Lowe of a young Chinese woman walking into the wind wearing patched clothes. —The foolish young critics who disparage brutalism should consider the times, as in “the temporal context.”

As for trying hard, even soldiers, playing for very high stakes, can’t be equally effective at all times. They have a rhythm to their days, their weeks and their “training year.” Napoleon, I dimly recall, said his soldiers would not be any good for fighting at two o’clock in the morning. He’s right; I know that now. So let me be gentle on myself for being human. It’s OK to “waste money” on oil paintings, on pastries, to have our highs and lows, and never mind going around with a strained “life is real, life is earnest” look… unless you’re a big bit in a cereal box. … …And then life will break you small, soon enough.

As I trudge through life, older and tired, with my strangest beliefs having fallen by the roadside, I carry two sane thoughts: One is “Don’t worry, be gentle.”

Another is “Unhappily, I think we compare ourselves to what we are like at our best, forgetting we are usually not at our best.”

Sean Crawford

~I first saw my painting in Victoria, on rice paper. How awed I was, decades later, to see it displayed in Calgary. I snapped it up, as a limited edition print. It’s called Wind Blows Ten Thousand Strands. (Of hair)

~Regarding office politics, I was told the problem with always working your maximum is you would have nothing left in reserve for doing “horse trades.”

~Regarding idealism, my for-profit agency, by trying real hard, keeps the administration costs down to seven percent, like the War Amps do, to free up more money for paying the staff. This when the industry standard is twenty percent. Comically, this flummoxed the government when it came time to give province-wide raises, as the civil servants initially underestimated the amount of new pay our agency needed; tragically, this meant our agency shot itself in the foot, because: when the government announced across-the-board cuts of one percent? We had no fat to chop: We started shaving calcium off our bones.

~Note to my brother-in-law, a hunter: OK, maybe the survival of a trophy deer is not coincidence, but I was stuck for examples; I didn’t want to leave an innocent cereal box standing out there all alone.

~I’m amused by a story out of Vietnam. The U.S. army was using dogs for sentries, patrolling and tracking, but there weren’t enough of them. At a meeting of officers, a general sternly suggested using the animals for longer hours. A worried young lieutenant burst out, “Oh, no sir! You can work a man like a dog, but you can’t work a dog like a man!”     

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Abstractions, Trickling Down

As I write this, 16 year olds in Scotland are voting on whether to separate from Britain. I will not, with an over-simple sound bite, address the issue of adolescents voting. But I will write something essay length, starting with a metaphor:

If “Reaganomics,” the president’s “trickle down” theory, is that as the rich get “more” the rest of us will get “some” then “everyday life-enomics” is where the experts work through “more” abstract knowledge and ideals so that “some” facts and concepts trickle down, sometimes as oversimplified sound bites and slogans. “A citizen’s duty is to be informed—” yes, I know …I could do better at learning thinks.

Sixteen year olds voting? At their age, I would guess, all they have to go on is what has trickled down to them. At least they went to school in Britain: Schools seem to be worse in the U.S. I have read that in America, “where you can’t underestimate the stupidity of the public” during all referendums and elections any issues, ideals or ideas must be communicated using mere sound bites: “Too explain is to lose.” In Canada, where surprise one-month elections are called, a serving Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, said, “An election is no time to discuss issues.” Of course, a cynic would say Campbell’s Yankee cousins couldn’t discuss issues between elections, either.

Still, 16 year olds voting? I forget, mercifully, whether I still “knew it all” by that age. I suppose idealistic teenagers typically have a black and white view of the world until the dust of the streets greys them.

While mentioning young Scottish voters in passing, a Canadian shrugged and said, “I guess if they’re old enough to fight they’re old enough to vote.” I remember enlisting at age 17. I soon found myself with the eye of a frog and a curious double vision: Above the water line, a clear lookout for fearsome herons. Below: a serene yellow pond-scape. My military middle-aged superiors would make decisions that had me looking up  red eyed with rage—and then my frog eye would click in and I would realize: One day I too would be middle aged, and then I would be in perfect calm agreement with them.

I think street smarts and coping skills are gained at the personal level—either you learn or you don’t—while at the social level, “life-enomics,” a minority works to allow our society as a whole to grow. And so I depend on trickle-down.

I think the biggest abstractions, like democracy, age of enlightenment and rights of the common man required years and years of thinking and writing by lots and lots of people, albeit a minority in each generation. By now sound bites and summaries have trickled down so that, say, human rights seem obvious. Yet, compared to the past, or the Arab world of today—3,000 princes in Saudi Arabia alone—human rights are very enlightened indeed. I don’t travel much, so I guess I can thank the war on terror for broadening my mind regarding Arabs. Broadening all of us, I guess.

It was one of the thinkers whom I have quoted on my blog, Neil Postman, who pointed out that literacy, for adults, teaches one to challenge each sentence upon arriving at the “full stop,” or period. It follows, I think, that Arabs may not reach “enlightenment” using fibre optics and screens; they may well need a class of folks who think with a pen. Hard for them to manage to think,  I realize, when their schools, or madrases, teach them to only memorize and recite, within a kingdom or a theocracy.

As for enlightenment, recently I have heard that “In modern times, no two democracies have ever gone to war against each other.” Now, there’s a comforting line to give to any angst-filled teenager. Back in university, I remember lots of joking talk about angst, although I don’t remember anyone ever confessing, “I have angst.” Back when I was an active optimistic teen soldier, serving “the body politic,” it was obvious to me the “body” included philosophers and deep readers: such folks would be part of committing us to war. Among my buddies was a feeling of an unspoken contract with society: “I will do what you say (fight your war) but you must know what you are doing.” We could be a  fighting part of the body without being old enough to vote. Meanwhile, citizens felt responsibility to grab on to what ever trickled down.

During Canada’s peace keeping, call it peace making, in the former Yugoslavia, writer Gwynne Dyer spoke to Canadian university students of voting age, that is to say, citizens. I was present. While saying he is not against us defending Muslims by bombing Serbians, he would remind us “ten per cent of the bombs dropped were Canadian.” We gasped. He continued, “How does it feel to be a member of an aggressor nation?” We gasped again. Later I reasoned it out for a speech to the university toastmasters club. If it’s OK to use force to defend Muslims, then the guilt is collective. Certainly when the Serbians see the planes come over they don’t blame the liberal party, or the air force. They curse “the Canadians.” When the voting members of the “body politic” choose war, then, as my parents well remember, it is underage girls who roll bandages while underage boys haul scrap iron off to be recycled, while other boys who are  underage go off to enlist. In our national family, we citizens better know what we are doing.

The implication, during peace and war, is right in my face: Young sailor boys, air crew and soldiers are innocent. Many of them are too young and "literacy challenged" to read anything, even trickle down writings, while some are even too young to vote. If servicemen are innocent then the guilt is not merely with society as a whole, but especially with folks over 21, those having had a few years to think things through. If all of us, in our everyday lives, work to enable some of us to fight, then the guilt is mostly with us. And specifically? With me and you.

Sean Crawford
September 18, 2014


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Now I "Get" Arabs

Lately I “got” something about Arabs. I used to wonder why older Arabs hadn’t matured, as I had. I’ve left childhood behind.

As a teenage soldier, a minor, I understood my regiment was divided into far flung battalions. I knew my battalion was the very best; I knew the next best battalion in the whole armed forces was our sister battalion, a battalion I had never seen, off in another province. That battalion almost as good as mine, but not quite… You don’t have to tell me I sound like that Boston bomber in his 20’s who thought Muslim nations overseas are better and more important than all other nations in the whole world, better than even his own nation, the U.S. The difference between us two is my own youthful beliefs didn’t have grave consequences…

As a young soldier I was knew that if, say, I left my army cap on the counter and someone from a different regiment spit on our special regimental cap badge, well, I was supposed to just yell and charge, swinging my fists. You don’t have to tell me I sound like an Arab being super-sensitive about insults to symbols. The difference is that even as an eager recruit I didn’t believe in committing murder over a symbol…

Did you know that in my province, Alberta, old and young veterans are allowed special vehicle license plates to proclaim our service? The plates show a red poppy, the memorial flower of Flanders Fields of the Great War. (Great as in Great depression, Humpty’s Great fall, and the Great flood of ‘13) If you go a small town cafe, where some of the cars outside show a poppy, you may see some middle aged men like me, with our chests too large to fit into our old uniforms. Down in the warmer U.S. we might be out on the porch of the general store, whittling wood and helping ourselves to the cracker barrel. In our autumn years, on both sides of the border, no longer active in NATO and NORAD, we are mature and deliberate citizens.

If, at the café table or cracker barrel, I were to “put down” and disparage other parts of the armed forces, such as the navy or a certain rival east coast regiment, then from the other mature men I would receive puzzled looks. In the eyes of good citizens, all of our armed forces are valued as tools at our disposal. In other words, cannons and navy SEALS are not “more better” than tanks and telephone linemen. From the other older men, if I offered to fist fight for the honour of symbols, I would receive looks of contempt. So, then, what’s wrong with older Arabs?

I know now. I found out from the various June 2009 postings of Steven Pressfield (link) where he interpreted Afghanistan, saying the Arabs are tribal. Pressfield is clear and emphatic: The tribal mindset does exist, it’s not going away, and we need to deal with it. In other words, let’s not blindly impose our western values on Afghanistan, not if we expect the little tribes to fight a bigger tribe called the Taliban. Unfortunately, even with a war on, it is hard for we at home, inheriting our culture of the Greek democracies where everyone is equal, where the individual is more important than the state, to grasp at our gut level that tribal culture is different. Actually, even the Greeks, before they invented democracy, were tribal: Such is the default for every early human culture.

It’s hard for us to grasp that not all nations are equally the same. Probably if we ever do “get it,” it’s only when we are motivated to learn because of war or business. For example, at the risk of being culturist or sexist, a businessperson who hopes to make a profit must accept that wives in Asia like their shampoo black, as they think it makes their hair glossier, and that wives in America like their dish soap—er, I mean detergent—to have bubbles. When detergent first came out, housewives stood at the sink and said, “There’s no foam, there’s no suds—how can it clean?” And so bubbles were artificially added. I remember this whenever I see a little creek with little bubbles floating by.

And what of wives in Arabia? Specifically, the smart, rich educated class of wives? After 9/11 I was standing in the store reading a book by a U.S. lady who married into the Bin Laden family. One day she phoned other Arab wives, one at a time, trying to arrange a birthday party for a child. Each one turned her down, with the last one saying something like, “Isn’t that (birthdays) a Christian thing? Isn’t Christmas the birthday of Christ?” My impression is that none of the wives had any gut feeling for science: So they didn’t open-mindedly, sincerely, ask whether birthdays were Christian. They did not have empirical bones, not enough to feel: Get the facts, don’t blindly assume, and be open to new facts. My empirical sister once replied to someone’s opinion, “In God we trust, all others must supply data.”

What are the implications of a whole country, including the rulers, being without science? Here is my thought experiment: If I am at a public campsite, next to a creek with floating suds, and the camper in the next tent is a nurse, and I jab a finger at my first aide kit and I loudly say to her, “This red cross is religious!” she will reply, “What the—?”and give me a funny look. But she won't tell me I'm wrong. But if I scientifically ask, humbly seeking data, “Is this religious?” then she will relax, say “no” and not feel a need to abruptly leave and go look at the creek. The sad thing, of course, is that in Arabia they don’t have the Red Cross: They have the Red Crescent. I guess nobody asked.

Here in North America I used to always read syndicated columnists like Dear Abby and Ann Landers. One day Ms. Landers had to reply to a common question, “If B.C. means before Christ, and A.D. means after death, what happens to the missing 33 years?” And Ms. Landers explained that A.D. means Anno Domini, “year of our Lord.” If many people don’t know what A.D. is short for, then the reason is our calendar terms have no religious significance. None. Saturday belongs not to the Roman god Saturn; Thursday belongs not to the Norse god Thor; July belongs not to the divine emperor Julius Caesar. As for the Arabs: You guessed it, they failed to ask. I don’t know what they think about July, but I know some say we should switch to saying B.C.E. and A.C.E. As in before and after the Common Era. You might think the idea is too crazy to contemplate, but get this: The Australians, for their school history textbooks, are making the switch.

When I was a boy, I noticed every school history textbook started out with pictures of the six or seven (they couldn’t decide) races. From the “Mongolian” race came our old word “Mongoloid,” now replaced, thank God, by “Down Syndrome.” I don’t believe in the seven races myself, but you may call me White. If you live down in the States and you learn I work in the human service, you may think I surely have a bleeding heart. (Actually, that reasoning doesn’t apply in up in Canada) It's up to you. If you are “anti-elitist,” whatever that term means to you, you might assume anyone with a blog about citizenship must be a liberal. And, finally, you might think: If the Arabs are upset from thinking that B.C. and A.D. is religious, then as a “White bleeding heart liberal” I really “should” be inclined to cry, “Let’s follow the lead of Australia!” You would be wrong.

I don’t believe in enabling laziness. Here in North America, if immigrants from Arabia can’t be bothered to ask, then that is their problem, not mine. In an age when every small town has a public library—even if it’s open on alternate weekends with some of the shelves in a caboose—there is just no excuse for not researching, or at the very least asking your co-workers, your neighbors and yes, your librarian.

A recent federal Supreme Court case is instructive. In Canada, three individual men had their cases heard at once. They were all long-term residents or landed immigrants. The issue? They each wanted, due to their conscience, religious or otherwise, to participate in the solemn swearing-in process to become Canadian citizens without swearing allegiance to the queen. The findings? The learned judges ruled the men should have found out—even by simply asking around, let alone doing library research—that the queen does not rule Canada. The verdict? To become citizens, the three men had to swear to the queen like everybody else.

To me, science means that if someone says Martians secretly rule the world, or, as the Egyptian ambassador said, that Islam is under attack worldwide—Like how in the Highlanders, there were always angry rumors (false, I realize now, in middle age) that the government wanted to take away our kilts—then the scientific response, as science fiction writer James Hogan taught his little girls, is to ask three questions: Who said so? Who’s he? How does he know?

If you are a young college student and your tribal aunts and uncles “won’t let you” ask the three questions, then you have a responsibility to “give yourself permission” to ask, to walk away from their don't-ask beliefs. You don’t have to be on campus to do this, although university is the time and place where it’s easiest. Huckleberry Finn figuratively walked away from his community’s belief that “my tribe is superior,” back when he was far too young for university, back when he couldn’t even read.

It feels queer, thinking a lot of grown men and women lack the responsibility of that boy.

Sean Crawford
~ “Alternate weekends” is when two small towns share the same library staff.

~Personal growth, walking away from your old internal culture, is something Steven Pressfield and I have done. His blog page yesterday (link) concerns internal culture.

~I definitely won’t be posting next week because I will be concentrating for a fortnight on composing poetry. Meanwhile, a commenter, Anonymous, has asked me, What one thing would you do if you knew you could not fail? The latest (August 19) blog posting of Scott Berkun (link) covers that, so maybe next week you could read him instead of me….
Are there any essays of mine you especially like? I ask, partly because if my essay output decreases, as my poetry and fiction increases, then maybe I could do a similar essay, or post a re-run.