Thursday, November 26, 2015

I Like Politicians

I like politicians. Not that I’m a political party member, but I’ve met some: As a university student newspaper reporter I interviewed a few; as a citizen in the community I’ve encountered a few; and I’ve conversed with a few Members of the (state) Legislative Assembly, MLA’s, in their offices.

I was standing at our receptionist’s counter showing a colleague a photocopied report of how our agency was so excellent. When my fellow worker asked, “Why the photocopy?” I said I was planning to show it to my MLA, (senator) a young man of the Sikh religion, Manmeet Bullar. That was yesterday. Today I opened my newspaper to find my MLA on the front page. The weather had been terrible on the Queen Elizabeth II highway, with the RCMP asking people to stay off if they didn’t need to travel. Bullar stopped to help a man who had spun out and rolled. He was standing on the shoulder when a transport truck lost control and struck him. He died in hospital.

I am not surprised Bullar died being of service.

The last time I saw Bullar I sat in his office as he shredded papers. This was just a couple months after his party had been almost totally swept from office, retaining only nine seats. While of course he couldn’t help me political-wise, not being in power, he could still help individual constituents; I watched him make a phone call to someone based on my advice. He could still connect people.

I laughed silently, and said, “You’re still here (in office) because people voted for the man, not the party.” I was not, of course, the only one to have told him that. We all liked Manmeet Bullar, and now he’s gone.

I miss him.

And the winter advances.

Next month someone will surely, once again, tell me that all politicians are bad. I won’t deny that some are idiots. Back when I lived in “downtown north” my MLA was so stupid that once when I went to see him I heard an angry voice from down the hall. It was someone I knew, giving the MLA heck. So I walked home and left my friend a phone message: “You go girl!”

It follows there can be foolish politicians at the federal level, and even in the office of the nation’s chief executive. (I appreciated the exposing of the younger President Bush in Oliver Stone’s movie) The trick is to remember that politics starts at the local level.

Back in the 1970’s I chuckled at the warm fuzzy humor in one of Spider Robinson’s short stories about patrons of Callahan’s saloon. The narrator tells of being at home throwing darts at the face of a famous politician. A few lines later he names the politician as being Richard Nixon. Then he says, “You imagined the same face, right?” At the time I laughed… but I’m not laughing now. For the writer’s young target audience, I suppose “Tricky Dick” would be the only bad politician they had ever known, but—citizenship starts at the local level. (Young dart throwers forget Nixon had a vice president, and a secretary of state) It’s a grave mistake to only vote federally, as I have read that some folks do, “because it’s more important.”

I grew up where people were a tad “citizenship challenged.” Half of our aldermen, as I dimly recall (I was a child) were involved in real estate, with our municipality, the largest in the British Commonwealth, being a “bedroom community.” Some sleepers were so lacking in local spirit they took their children away on Halloween to “trick or treat” in the nearby city, to get more candy from denser housing. Decades later, one of those alderman was the provincial premier: (state governor) He ended up having a “—gate” scandal to his name. My point is he started locally, with local sleepers not understanding the need for wide-awake volunteer citizen-oversight to guide young politicians onto the straight and narrow road. I suppose, as my father thought of the fascists when we bombed them during the war, “People get the government they deserve.”

Never mind that premier. Most of our politicians are good. They realize that while campaign promises are in a special territory, promises in their constituency office are as binding as promises between you and me.

It is a cliché that any large group of people you and I find ourselves in will always contain a wide range of the human condition, from “saints to sinners.” Hence the locker rooms in our finest police stations, prisons and priest dormitories contain locks for the lockers.

In my province the party members are plain people like you and me, well-meaning people who, a few years back, stuck the rest of us with a bland mediocre premier, “Steady Eddy.” He didn’t last long. The folks like you and me, from noble farms and towns and cities, stuck us with their third choice of leader because, in their party leadership votes, they lied. Or, to use a euphemism, they “voted strategically.” Well. Let’s not expect our politicians to be any more saintly than you and me in our general lives. Besides, we crucify our saints.

As I finish writing this, a day later, the tributes for Manmeet Bullar are still coming in. Such a good man. He was the politician I liked the best.

Sean Crawford
Calgary, Alberta

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Poetics of H.G. Wells

I am posting this the day after Remembrance Day. (In the U.S. it’s been called Armistice Day and Veterans Day)

As you know, any of my blog posts with “Poetics” in the title mean a poem I’ve memorized, presented with a related essay. Today the poem is un-memorized: It’s one I wrote myself, with the italic verses being a paraphrasing of the words used by Wells in his late 19th century novel, which takes place in the “future,” the early 20th, called The War of the Worlds.

If Well’s novel is still in print after a hundred years, it’s not because he knew science, but because he knew people. He was more courageous than you and I about seeing human character, and seeing society. I think now that while every generation “forgets” about the horror of war, so too does each generation go into denial about “Vietnam veteran syndrome” or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If Wells knew, then we in the Nineteen-sixties could have known, and should have known.

But I’m not bitter; I know we all deny things. Right now, for example, I see us all perched on the edge of business-as-usual, OR facing up to the fact of childhood bullying. Since the Columbine school massacre, I think progress is being made—but I think we could still slide back. I read where a bully, at his recent high school ten-year reunion, was truly amazed that an adult he had bullied when they were kids still remembered, still resented. I think so far, as new schoolchildren are forgetting the word “Columbine,” society is not going back into denial, (“Bullying is normal, kids will be kids”) not like that grown-up bully did. Not like we naturally used to.

Yesterday was Remembrance Day. Let’s not, even though it’s tempting, forget the big things: wars and crimes against humanity. I remember a Nazi hunter being asked why he exposed poor tottering senior citizens as being hidden Nazi war criminals. He replied the criminals of the next war are already living among us, and he wants them to see there will be consequences.

I suppose Remembrance Day is a gentle, non-glorious way of avoiding war by not forgetting. Humble is good. I guess I’m in the minority for seeing the day as important, and I guess I should humbly accept that normal people see it as merely a statutory day for shopping. During boyhood, my family despised how Yankee chain stores stayed open on the eleventh. Today I could be pleased it’s a statutory holiday for others, although this year at my job we all had to come to work, including a young mother who’s son, in cadets, was speaking at the ceremony. (No, she wouldn’t pretend she was sick that day)

Bless H.G.
God bless Herbert George Wells,
a man who
on the night of Vietnam
would not deny three times,
as the goddam surgeon general did,
the fact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Never mealy-mouthed,
Wells wouldn’t curl his lips over
combat fatigue or operational exhaustion.
Wells would have spoken loud and clear: Shell shock.

But there was no such word
when Well was writing his Martians,
before the Great World War.
Wells had the courage to know things.

I am sitting by lamplight in my study, abruptly
out my window I see again the valley in flames.

I am walking.
The butcher boy passing on his bicycle vanishes
and I hurry again in the dark with the artilleryman
 …past dog-eaten corpses
that rise up and gibber at me.

Wells knew, God bless him,
that fighting,
even alongside the angels,
leaves deep, deep scars.

Sean Crawford
November 12, 2015
~An anti-bullying resource book, with the above reunion anecdote, is referenced in my essay Saving Tomorrow Land, archived August 2015.

~ Some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resource books are referenced in my essay Voices of PTSD, archived June 2012.

~For schoolteachers who want a discussion resource, I am enjoying a manga (translated Japanese comic book) about bullying called A Silent Voice, where the viewpoint character bullies a deaf transfer student. I’m still only half way through volume one, but it’s looking good. From Kodansha Comics, by Yoshitoki Oima, it’s rated for ages 13+

~My poem won’t be available for purchase until 2016, as part of my book of poetry, Tracing the Martians of H.G. Wells.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

History and Being Strange

In this life, besides death and taxes, two things go without saying: We all have our individual little quirks, and history repeats. Nothing, not even the most horrible of wars, seems to result in anybody learning anything. I know what my quirk is: being disturbed at seeing society forgetting horrible lessons—it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else.

Recently I was at the Legion Hall for a big public meeting. The occasion was something bizarre: The provincial (state) government was going to force us to implement extremely costly safety changes to our homes, and was beginning bizarre “safety” inspections. The provincial busybodies had no understanding that no minority group, including persons with disabilities, deserves to have, say, government strangers coming in and asking a young handicapped lady how often her towels on the racks are changed, or asking if anybody in the home hunts, because deer meat is not government inspected—believe me, this is already happening.

The only historic precedent I can think of is the general one of a government department getting too big, having too much time on their hands. I’m sure no other state in North America is demanding, as our is, that low-profit landlords and single-parent families retrofit new ceiling sprinklers, install new firewalls and more.

In attendance were officials from our city. They didn’t know why we were protesting, couldn’t understand how anything else could be as important as safety. Maybe they hadn’t realized people on disability incomes deserve to rent among the rest of us in the community, and not live in “special warehouses” out beyond where the transit buses run.

When my turn at the microphone came, near the end of the evening, I chose to explain the initials that people had been saying again and again: PDD. I said it stands for the provincial government department that is standing on our backs, Persons with Developmental Disabilities. I remembered when there was no PDD: things were better back then. I said whoever was in charge of reaching out to the local newspaper should ask for elderly columnist Don Braid, as he had previously exposed PDD.

Afterwards, as we were milling around, a few people thanked me. I felt good. What I didn’t tell my fellow haters-of-PDD, some of whom had in fact being trying to reach Don Braid, was what I didn’t say.

I stayed silent partly because many in the meeting were intellectually challenged, and partly because I thought it was too late in the evening to start talking broadly, but mainly because my common sense knew better: I overruled my quirk of “giving a care” about history.

Instead I told my sister a week later as we walked along the sidewalk. I said I hadn’t spoken of the horrors of putting safety above all else during our own war, by using what we euphemistically called “force protection” when we were aiding the local power. You can’t “win hearts and minds” for the people to convert to democracy over Vietnamese communism, or over Arabic radicalism, not after such “safety”—firing back wildly—has left the first baby or child lying dead.

I told her I didn’t mention the horror, in Iraq, of them not listening when everybody—barbers, taxi drivers, interpreters, Bagdad professors—everybody would say, “Are you crazy? You can’t disband the Iraqi army!” But they did, and a slow stream of gasoline fell down towards the fire.

My sister said I did the right thing not to speak.

History repeats when everybody in the disabled community is against the government’s insane safety measures, and nobody in power listens. It disturbs me: The public puts our boys in harms way, to suffer terribly, continuing to suffer for years after they return, if they return, and then the public acts as if it’s all for nothing… all that agony with no lesson learned… Hey, here’s a sad joke: Someone said the only lesson learned from Vietnam was: never get involved in a war in a former French colony in South East Asia.

A fellow Calgarian, who was a field nurse when we were young, refers to Vietnam as causing “dreams that blister sleep.” We think those years were important. During Nam we youth were sure that a major reason for losing that war was paperwork, specifically paperwork of the CYA variety, our term for “cover your ass.” You might hold the possibility, scientifically, that we young guys didn’t know enough to judge. Not so. A career colonel (top executive) published his memoirs of being a young officer in Vietnam, and in his forward he writes he learned there that army paperwork is not important. He sounds like a modern housewife saying things aren’t critical unless someone is bleeding.

My dad’s war, of course, was fought by volunteers and conscripts. They weren’t peacetime career soldiers as in (except for drafted privates) Vietnam. Without CYA paperwork, they kept their gaze focused on carrying out the mission.

I suspect PDD has made CYA systemic and endemic. Maybe, in a sense, PDD is spitting on the graves of our Vietnam veterans. Or maybe that’s just my quirk—sure it is.

It’s queer. I’m as old as Dad was during the Vietnam War. And now I wear wide-legged pants like him. He passed away this year, but I can imagine us today on a screened-off porch: He, street-wise, is giving me advice to “go along to get along.” Beyond the screen, pale and anonymous, are angry young men. I am sorry. In my youth I made them a promise that today I just can’t keep.

During Nam, Robert Kennedy noted that the South Vietnamese government knew what would work to encourage democracy: they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. It’s like how today we can’t bring ourselves to fix our little regions of higher drug use and suicides. I’m still a little disturbed these days, but I realize: My dad and the majority are right, and I am wrong.

Now, like everyone else in my field, I go along: I write daily reports as if the reader does not take responsibility to read yesterday’s reports, does not believe in “benefit of the doubt” and does believe in writing CYA-style, as if Vietnam never happened. I am sorry.

Sean Crawford
Maybe we’ve won: The minister has said the government will hold off on any new safety measures until around Easter of 2016. I have my fingers crossed.