Thursday, January 7, 2016

Iceberg Ahead

On a lighter note

A smiling young archivist at the Museum of the Regiments, a man who had majored in history at Mount Royal University, once told me something: If you don’t know history, if you don’t know where you’ve been, then you don’t know where you are.

I would add, And you don’t know where you’re headed.

History lessons don’t have to be grand and ancient at all, you know, they can be small and recent. Sometimes I cringe to see a new television show that ignores common sense (from history) as to how long a title should be, or how many characters are reasonable. Hint to Hollywood suits: The Enterprise transporter room had only six spots. Another hint: The failed re-boot of Heroes, as one critic wrote, had “way way way too many characters.”

I groan when I see a new retail business go into a place that has been a revolving door of failed businesses. Where you are, in that case, is: headed for failure. The owner could have checked with locals, or, if it’s yet-another-doomed restaurant, determined how many tables doing X business per hour would be needed to pay the rent—some places start with too few tables, with no room to fit more in. As the door revolves.

It’s the New Year, here in sunny Alberta and, as it happens, I’ve been de-cluttering. Here’s where we’ve been. Before me are three historical documents from only a few years ago: a provincial government piece of cardboard, a flimsy PR page, and an old newspaper. It’s eye opening.

The cardboard is about the size and shape of a folded letter, colorful and simple: The revenue is X, the expenses are X+Y, (meaning there’s a deficit) and the “sustainability fund,” it is plainly written, covers the deficit. I think the piece came in the mail, as on the back is various reports of millions here and there going to categories here and there. This was in 2013. A deficit? Horror!

I think storm clouds had begun to gather, unseen by the Conservative Party, with this deficit.

But the darkest, quietest storm cloud was from something even worse than a deficit: when the provincial budget reporting was changed so that normal citizens, such as college-educated reporters, could no longer read it. Specifically, as best I can dimly recall, citizens could no longer tell if, in our province, we were operating at a profit or a loss. Any accountant will tell you the industry standard ethical principle is: You must never change how you report finances unless you have a good clear reason. (In South Vietnam, the war effort began to stink like a cadaver the moment the US changed how they measured enemy troop strength, so the efforts of previous years could no longer be compared)

Things were different just a year earlier. In contrast to the nice pretty cardboard I have a colorful one page flimsy, 8 ½ by 11, from 2012, sent by my favorite Member of the Legislative Assembly, the late Manmeet Bullar. It starts in Bullar’s voice, “My friends, you have made it very clear to me that responsible spending is a top priority.” Below the opening paragraph, is writ bold The Alberta government won’t raise takes, is debt free, has money in the bank and has a surplus coming. I imagine a fellow Albertan reading this now with a sob. It sure ain’t that way anymore.

In the middle, in a blue box, is a quotation: “Alberta has been debt-free since 2004 and will remain so over the forecast horizon.” What caused a storm over everyone’s brow—and I would even include some Conservative Party members as having furrowed brows—was when our government suddenly declared they were going full steam ahead with a deficit. Apparently our infrastructure, roads and such, were not sustainable unless paid for. Paid for not with savings, year by year, but with a deficit. Well. Roads not sustainable? Who knew? Down the years not a word had been spoken about it. Not by students and professors of civil engineering. Not by reporters who had sons and siblings as working engineers. As best I recall, at the time, every single columnist was skeptical about steaming towards this iceberg. Not one journalist wrote, “I’ve researched it, asked experts, and now I heartily agree with the government.” Instead they passively reported the government’s words, with skepticism oozing between the lines.

The significance of this to my neighbors is to be found in our history. We Albertans had a wake up call from President Reagan about the deficit. Remember? After the White House blared the D-word, the rest of North America said, “Yikes!” Then all over America, as in my province of Alberta, the deficit kept growing like a monster even as we kept striving to slow and then reverse the red count. Our provincial premier, like a western Margret Thatcher, had to be awfully tough if we were to bite the rawhide and endure the pain. Which we did. Even though, like modern Greeks, we had our street demonstrations.

Unlike the Greeks, we could simultaneously demonstrate and also take responsibility for our provincial deficit being, if not our fault, then at least our responsibility. But it was, citizens knew, our fault. Our return to sanity was painful. We watched as Calgary’s old brick central hospital, at least seven stories high, was imploded into dust because we could not afford to run it; we could not even afford to mothball it for the years it would take to fight the deficit. It was a hard fight, it took years… but we won. And then, a few years ago, our provincial government, with a conservative majority, committed us all to a deficit. Did they not remember?

And when the inevitable, traditional, Alberta oil boom-and-bust cycle hit “bust,” we had zero margin of safety. Zero. We were left blowing in the wind like a broken ranch windmill no longer able to pump any life-giving water. We were like a farmer who has eaten his next year seed corn. Oil wells shutting down, people being laid off... As I write this Albertans are only saying the economy will be bad for the foreseeable next year. Locally, no one is writing that it will be years, plural, before we are ever back to normal. But they will very soon. Sometimes sanity takes a while. I know this because I know my neighbors.

Above me lives a Vietnam veteran who spent years as a prisoner after the fall of Ho Chi Min city. (Then called Saigon) As you can imagine, he tell me he feels so happy at just the simplest things, such as being able to hold a cup of coffee in the Tim Hortons café. But he wouldn’t be happy with a deficit. Beside me live a friendly Chinese couple who escaped communism. They like anything Chinese, as long as it’s not anything communist. However low their expectations for government, they wouldn’t like a deficit.

As for the other side of me, and below me, there are no suites. As for my three neighbors, it would be a big coincidence if they all held the exact same values as I do, or reached the exact same conclusions from a given set of facts, or they all held the same party membership as me. Of course I can still respect them. What would break my respect would be if they broke their principles.

The editorial headline reads Conservative scandals multiplying by the day. That’s for The Calgary Herald for May 29, 2013. (For the federal conservatives, actually) In the end it was the scandals, which I won’t go into here, which ruined the Conservative Party that ran our province. The scandals, we all knew, marked something broken deep inside the party. Alberta has often been seen as a one-party province; seen as a dry landscape with farmers, ranchers and oil workers. Maybe so, maybe we are poor, but we are also honest. And so the conservatives should have known where they were headed.

They were headed to massive electoral defeat. “Massive” meaning the “mass” of people had already decided, quietly, before the election, the government had busted principles. Here’s where we are today: The socialists in 2015 formed a large majority government. The Conservative Party was surprised at the election, but I sure wasn’t. Scandals have consequences, and principles matter. If only the not-so-fiscal conservatives in power had known history, then they would have known that Alberta is always due for another bust, the only question is when. In Alberta we all know this, just as we secretly know, with suppressed dread, in the middle of our short summer, that winter is coming. (Sorry to remind you now, but at least it’s January)

On a lighter note

History is not always gloomy you know, and it’s not to be studied only for practical reasons. History is fun like science, fun for it’s own sake. Too bad news reporters, with their focus on new-ness, are possibly less historically aware than other people. Here’s what made me chuckle at what nobody in the media knows: Remember how last month the Miss Universe pageant was in the news? Remember how for 20 seconds, live on camera, the crown was on the wrong head? Well, from the above 2013 Calgary Herald comes this front page, top and center, Miss Universe headline CALGARY WOMAN NAMED RIGHTFUL PAGEANT WINNER. Riza Santos was not told the good news until after a rival had worn the Miss Universe Canada crown… for… three days. The mistake “…resulted from a typo in the computerized scoring results of the top five contestants.”  

Actually, someone in the media does know: The article is by Valerie Fortney. I used to volunteer with Val on the university student newspaper. Reading her article I see where Santos, like so many contestants, “has a life.” I think, “Wow, Santos sure does a lot”—something that had once been said of me. Naturally, if I keep to my couch—actually, if I keep to my Tim Hortons café table—then my next year will be as uneventful as my last. That’s fine by me. And here we are: Happy New Year.

Sean Crawford
~I wrote of the late Manmeet Bullar in my essay I like Politicians, archived November 2015.

~I wrote of Santos in my essay New Citizens and Soldiers archived June 2013.

~common sense department: I can’t imagine a young housewife, channel-searching her TV one night, deciding to try out a show with the long name Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles. The series was good, about a single mother and her teenage son, but it was doomed in part by its title. If the executives had common sense they have known to cut off the four syllable first word, and the slow-down colon, and the second word too. (Trust me, the fans would have easily found the show without the word “terminator,” everybody into popular-culture-sci-fi knows the name Sarah Connor)

I relished the plot challenge of T:TSCC For the show to work, there must be robots in the background, yet, because the terminators are unstoppable, Sarah and her son must never meet one. Like how, in the old weekly TV show, The Fugitive never meets “Inspector Javert.” Instead, the Connors have to rebuild their life, like in a witness protection program—so where’s the conflict? Trust me, the conflict is there, the show was well done. Too bad it aired on the same network that killed Firefly. (Link: The very first review is my buddy Blair’s. He explains why the series is so good. The next review explains why people are bitter about "the suits" at Fox network)
Call me a feminist, but I like Sarah, and I have her name as one of my archive labels.

~I have a blog label for “TV” too, as periodically I analyze how television works. I’m sorry I forget which essay has my reasoning on the maximum number of TV characters. My “best” TV post, going by hit count, is Death of Buffy, archived in January 2012. Be warned: It’s long.

~eventful life department: With the help of my sensei, Sheri-D Wilson, during the last month of 2015 I sent off a manuscript: not a “collection” of poems, but a crafted “book” of poems. Tracing the Martians of H. G. Wells. It’s taken many seasons of meeting with Sheri-D to compose it, but it’s been worth it. Even if, statistically, I know I have to send it out many times before it sells. Event-wise, it’s been my equivalent of building a log cabin in my spare time. Finished. I wonder what my next project will be?  


  1. You want to build a log cabin? Somewhere to write your next collection of pieces? Excellent idea. It makes sense to me.

    Can building a log cabin be that hard? *smirk*

    Congrats with your work! Woo hoo!

  2. Thank you.
    Actually, I currently live in a "ships cabin" complete with a fold down wall bed. Like a starship cabin. Cozy and all paid for… When I bought a new TV everyone could guess where it would have to go.

    Built on bare land with an all-linoleum floor. No messy carpeting. My lawyer couldn't believe my low price. "It's cozy," I said "Very cozy."