Friday, July 29, 2016

Caring for Janis Joplin

From his both photograph and his writing in the newspaper, it is obvious that television critic Bill Harris is a middle-aged man, as I am. He begins his latest article by noting that Prince was middle-aged, 57, “and everyone can agree, that’s way too young to go.” But as Harris notes, others have left us at a far younger age.

Harris has previewed this week’s PBS showing of a documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue. Janis Joplin died at age 27 in 1970. She was indeed blue: The documentary reveals a letter of hers that reads, “After you reach a certain level of talent, and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition. Or as I see it, how much you really need to be loved, and need to be proud of yourself.” This from a woman who, according to the documentary, had been voted “most ugly” by fraternities.

On stage I’m sure Joplin felt loved. Proud. There she was happy. But not off the stage. There she abused alcohol and was often hooked on heroin. She would try to kick her addiction, succeed for a while, and always relapse. Talk show host Dick Cavett recalls having a conversation with Joplin where he asked her if she could assure him she wasn’t on heroin. He never forgot her reply: “Who would care?”

I like Harris’s paragraph:
“There are many people in this world who are unhappy. There are many people in this world who are lonely. There are many famous people in this world who struggle with fame. But not all of them end up dead from a drug overdose.”

Joplin died alone. She was found “in a hotel room in Oct. 4, 1970.” Harris includes the trifling detail of the exact date because, I think, he wants to say that her death, and the death of anyone, is not trifling.

In a further attention to fairness Harris notes that Joplin “is one of several famous musical performers… (Whose studio output) might leave you somewhat underwhelmed… but it was as a live singer that she could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”

With that short phrase, “hair stand up,” Harris makes me miss poor Joplin, miss what might have been. I think Harris has sympathy for Joplin, and for the “several famous,” and for all of us who miss those gone too soon. Harris reminds me that, for folks like me and him, our middle age can be time for expanded sympathies. For us, no one is “most ugly,” no one is trivial, and everyone matters.

Harris would agree: If I had met Janice away from a brash party, somewhere quiet where we could connect, then I hope I would have shown her I cared. With my brash days far behind me, I know now: We all need a sense of caring.

Sean Crawford
On the prairies


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Liberation and Lingering Ethos 

Ethos, noun: the characteristic spirit of a culture, era or community, as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations
New Oxford American Dictionary, on my computer’s ROM (Read Only Memory)

In a novel by Stephen King, 11/22/63, a high school teacher time-travels to blend in as a substitute teacher back in the 1950’s. In that conformist “real man” time, a high school athlete meets with the teacher privately, to wimp out, to say that he doesn’t think he can be a lead in the school play… because other athletes are ridiculing him, and because, as he says in a low voice, he’s stupid.

The teacher from the 21st century knows better. “…You’re a C student because, as a football player, you’re supposed to be a C student. It’s part of the ethos.”

“The what?”

“Figure it out from the context and save the dumb act for your friends. … Listen to me. People automatically think anyone as big as you is stupid. Tell me differently if you want to; according to what I hear, you’ve been walking around in that body since you were twelve, so you should know.”

(By the way, if you like my essays, then I think you’d like Stephen King’s book)

Today I’m thinking about the word King’s character used. “Ethos.” The ‘50’s was a time when popular people didn’t wear glasses, gorgeous cheerleaders were not interested in science—when heck, half the student body, the female half, was officially “not smart enough” for science, and not capable of achieving the sort of self-esteem that comes from being competent… (Except in women’s spheres) The ’50’s is my favorite decade… but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Q: Can you surpass the ethos of your era? A: Yes!

I first learned how personal liberation was possible from a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “If This Goes On—” (Published in Revolt in 2100) The hero, John Lyle, is a sincere trusting fellow, raised in a future U.S., in a totalitarian-style theocracy. Naturally he believes what everyone else does.

John thinks the Prophet (Ayatollah) must not be questioned, a person charged is guilty until proved innocent, one can be “sinfully proud,” unbelievers deserve death if caught outside the ghetto after curfew, and sex is wrong. John learns otherwise only by taking action, talking with others and reading forbidden texts—he keeps looking over his shoulder as he reads, feeling scared and guilty.

Like something out of Orwell, the phrase “separation of church (mosque) and state” is simply not in John Lyle’s vocabulary: therefore not thinkable. (I wonder if Arabs today feel safe to discuss separation) By the end of the story John keeps his religion, while he is finally able to say out loud, at last, that clerics and leaders, being mortal men, can lie about being the political voice of God.

Too bad too many Mormons still today cannot say that about their prophet Warren Jeffs, even after he has been tried, convicted and is serving life in jail.

Liberation doesn’t happen overnight. In my own time, at the dawn of feminism, the housewives of the women’s liberation movement found they had to have meetings in the kitchen, “consciousness raising” they called it, to reinforce the new teachings—and to create new knowledge together. I think even if you do layer on new words, and recite new ideas, reciting them often enough to counterbalance the old messages, then under the new layers the old un-new, un-improved you still remains. If tomorrow I time-traveled back to the 1950’s, or even walked down the road to the church, I would know instantly what swear words not to use, what topics not to mention. The old me remains, somewhere inside.

As I write this, I would be disrespectful towards my U.S. readers if I ignored the war they have undertaken: It’s common knowledge the terror-exporting nations, despite their Arab Spring, are having difficulty in believing in democracy, or in the 1948 UN declaration of Universal Human Rights. Since Muslims seem to prefer their Islamic past, I guess there’s no Arab national effort for having conversations about becoming modern. As far as I can tell, Arabs aren’t waving the flag and beating the drum in an effort to reinforce a consciousness-raising campaign for achieving democracy.

But I have hope: Seeds were planted during their spring, seeds that might bloom in 30 years. Or less. After all, a bloom happened in Canada for a fellow Albertan, Gladys Taylor, as she described in Alone in the Boardroom.

QUOTE (page 63) I heard Betty Friedan speak in Toronto one afternoon in the late 1950’s or early 60s. She said things I had long been thinking but never dared express. Before hearing her I hadn’t found anyone who shared my free-the-spirit ideas. Once I heard her my unspoken yearning for independence seemed legitimate. I was not a rebel without a cause. Some 30 years later when it came time for me to go out on my own, the seeds she had sown made it easier for me. I would probably never have sought independence on my own—I was still too steeped in the Victorian ethic—but once it was presented to me I was able to accept it more readily because I had assimilated a feminist outlook from Betty Friedan and her book The Feminine Mystique. UNQUOTE

Next I will dwell on liberation, in order to develop the subject of ethos, to then lead back to the plight of Arabs.

Here in North America I get a kick out anyone doing whatever is necessary to get liberated: to shrug off constraints and achieve personal growth. On the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio recently I heard an interview of an enthusiastic young lady who had won a music prize. Turns out she grew up in my old Canadian municipality of Surrey, “in White Rock and Vancouver” where she explained she had felt dismayed, hadn’t felt at home, because she saw so few “people of color” like her around. So she went to Jamaica and G. (Guyana or Guinea, I forget which) and now she is back in Canada and feels “quite at home.”

I have to smile: As a shining example to people everywhere, both religious and atheist, she has done “whatever it takes.” I wonder if other young people might put in only a half-effort, and then only feel half-happy.

I’m living in Alberta on the Great Plains. If you watch the teams on Hockey Night in Canada you might think my country is a sea of Europeans. Not so. Part of this illusion is that, besides good players being recruited now from Northeast Europe, many players traditionally come from the heart of ice hockey: the cold prairies, where kids like Geordie How would be taking shots on the ice until it was too dark to see.  Back when I was boy the third largest group in Canada, after Britain and France, was from “the Ukraine.” They were whites from the endless Eurasian steppes who had settled mainly on the vast plains. That was during my Grandpa’s time. Times change. The last I heard, Canada’s third largest group was Chinese. The two cities I have spent my adult life in, Vancouver and Calgary, are quite cosmopolitan.

As a teenager my high school in Surrey had one black family, (the boy was in my chess club) one Japanese family (the Aokis) and one Chinese (Kevin was in my elementary school class, his family owned the corner store) Things have changed. It was around when I moved out from home that things went va-voom! Surrey has since incorporated as a city, with a population to rival nearby Vancouver, and both of those cities, like Calgary, are cosmopolitan. When that young local woman said she felt left out, she didn’t mean there weren’t lots of Non-Europeans around—of course there were, both East Asian and South Asian: She meant there weren’t persons of African (sub-Saharan) heritage.

For me, from my late teens onward, “diversity,” to use the latest buzzword, has been normal.

Have you ever been to Phoenix? I never made it to that city specifically, but I at least I drove in surrounding cities that had sprung up since the postwar spread of air conditioning, and I gazed at big open canals, surely a postwar project. I was there to attend a big outdoor music festival, where most of the fans came from Tucson (I heard) and there were about 27,000 fans per day (I read in the newspaper)

Lingering Ethos
Arriving a few days early, I was shopping and going around to nightspots before the festival started. (To me Hispanics look European, unless they dress old-fashioned) You may have guessed: I was a day into the festival before I clued in—because a young gatekeeper was black—that all I was seeing in the cities and at the festival was Europeans: fans, food vendors, musicians and their sound techs, state troopers—everybody. I hadn’t noticed. Despite my four decades of cosmopolitan living, a European neighborhood remained normal to me. Still. After all these years.

This means an ethos has staying power. This means, during the War on Terror, if Muslim governments wish to “divide and conquer” to prevent their subjects from achieving democracy, then, I’m sorry to say, for the rulers “dividing” will be easy child’s play. Easy, that is, unless every Arab now living remains vigilant all his life not to fall back, not to fall back into believing that violence is acceptable against Arab Christians, or Sunni Muslims, or women and children.

Not to fall back into believing Muslim men and women don’t deserve the Universal Human Rights declared by the UN after World War II. As American immigrants from the Middle East could tell the Arabs: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

As I write this, under a vast prairie sky, one of my little joys in life is getting liberated.

You too?

Sean Crawford

Today's Late Breaking Comment,  July 21:
Today Toronto Metro News staffer Gilbert Ngaio reported on Europe, headlined On Canada's Good Example (in the Views section, next to Rosemary Westwood) I don't see it on the web, so I can't  link to it.

Context: The European Union doesn't believe in diversity as we know it. You may recall best-selling writer and Dutch Member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali explaining after 9/11 how Europe believes in enclaves and all-Muslim schools rather than integration. Has anything changed? 

Ngaio reports that children in "welcome classes" in Germany have to arrive and leave at different times than the other students at their primary school. "Because the new kids are immigrants and don't speak German yet, they're completely separated from other students at school, to avoid any potential conflicts." Not like how Canada treats our 25,000 Syrian refugees. 

My contribution: I don't expect Europe to be capable of an American-style assimilation. Sorry.

That said, if Europe wants to switch from enclaves to integration then, as with other social movements (and like a vast hospital staff reforming to become "world class") there will have to be lots of dialogue and consciousness-raising between people, not solely in the media. And there will have to be lots of celebrating small successes—again, as with Canada's Syrians.

If you are a European reading this: Go to your media and urge them to send staff to Canada to report back on how a new vision is possible. If a traditional hospital staff can learn to change their ethos, then so can a European city.

~Speaking of getting liberated, although writer Robert Heinlein had a reputation for being a practical engineer skilled at algebra, I think he was in fact an artist. He once wrote that when he realized he couldn’t cry he resolved to teach himself to do so.

~ During my lifetime I’ve witnessed growing liberation around disabilities. President Roosevelt, who served in the White House during the Great Depression and then during my dad’s war, has left to history (as best I can determine) only a single picture of him using his wheelchair, and that picture was taken from behind him. Time passed. During my boyhood President John F. Kennedy, who served as a PT boat captain during the war, was sometimes photographed with his crutches. (Bad back)

Today, in contrast, the Minister of Veteran’s Affairs, a man who played on my community college ice hockey team, and with whom I served on a club executive back in university, has used a wheelchair during his entire political career. Meanwhile, the Minister of the Department of National Defense is visibly a member of the Sikh religion. Both ministers, of course, are duly elected Members of Parliament.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

My favourite decade: The 1950's

Oh, to be young in the 1950’s! After centuries of having to house several generations under one roof, society turned affluent. Suburbs sprang up. Mothers still sewed, collected buttons, and patched jeans, but there wasn’t the same degree of desperate poverty, nor the same craving for status.

Today, of course, we are richer still: Gone our 1950’s need for heirlooms, good china, and wearing jeweled broaches. In my favorite decade clothing became classic and sensible: T-shirts began to edge out button up shirts, business suits came in two pieces, not three. Classic. Boys and girls exchanged slacks and wide skirts for blue jeans. Sensible. On weekends folks began wearing running shoes. Remember?

It was a boom time when people were excited about having a regular life, echoed in magazines like Homemaker and Popular Mechanics. Everyone knew what was true, good and normal. Everyone except for communists and beatniks. Today, of course, ladies magazines like Oprah’s are full of questions and options and the search for a good life, as if society doesn’t know anymore what everyone should do.

Such fun! Students had cruising, sock hops and soda counters. An affluent media exploded with kids music, and kids stories: kids in the new suburbs, (by Beverly Cleary) doing high school athletics, (Chip Hilton) serving in hospitals, (Cherry Ames) on ranches and summer camps (Walt Disney’s Spin and Marty) and even in outer space. (Tom Corbet, Space Cadet, first as a radio series and then on the tube) Kids were living like Archie and Betty at Riverdale High. At school you could go in for (a) sports and cheerleading, or (b) student council. It was a heady time; someone even wrote a book called Is There Life After High School? 

Looking back, the majority of students, who were neither (a) nor (b), must have felt left out, like how a person today reports feeling left out and surrounded by an immense White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. Today high schools are presumably better, because they include diverse identities allowing a kid to feel OK, including: Goths, artsys, poets, glee, drama, band, anime, high fashion, freaks and geeks, audio and video, intramural and extramural sports, cheerleading, computers, rock bands, rappers, workshop, science… and of course, chess.

The 1950’s teen heroes were earnest… future members of the Rotary club and the Moose… never losers, rebels or sarcastic nonwinners.

If a community in the 1950’s had less diversity, then at least it had a nice calming simplicity, like a tidy living room. In 1950’s the cowboy hats of Hollywood showed little diversity of shape, varying only by color. Speaking of hats, back then people left their religious beanies and bonnets at home until Sunday. Not until the 21st century, in a community as diverse as a teenager’s messy bedroom, did I see hijabs blossoming. I hear that in American cities the minorities are now the majority—but I hear they are turning inwards, away from each other. Too bad. Now is the time to make a society we can all belong to… while I miss the 1950’s.

Sean Crawford

Footnote: How affluent we are. I grew up with a darning handle and hoop around the house, I can dimly remember my mother darning socks. Now a 21st century self-help book, entitled How to Walk in High Heels subtitled The Girl’s Guide to Everything by Camilla Morton contains this: (page 368)
Darning Socks
“No one darns socks any more, so this as a perfectly ridiculous skill to want to learn. If you find you are wearing a peep-toe pair, discard immediately…”

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Respect and Red Tape

Show me where your focus is, and I will tell where your heart is.
European proverb

Before there was red tape there were people of respect, so I will start with them.

I know two very nice mentally handicapped people, a man and woman: call them clients. They have two “supportive roommates:” call them staff. The four are close in age. The supportive staff act mature and respectful, both to each other and to their roommates. I like seeing respect, partly because I can imagine other homes and situations where people are disrespected and devalued.  

I can imagine, hypothetically, there being a lack of respect between the children in a big stressed family, especially if, say, there’s a ten year gap in age between two brothers. During their growing up years the oldest boy might devalue the youngest one: Besides the obvious ways to devalue, he might not care to explain things, or to share what’s going on in his life. The two boys would live in two separate worlds.

But in later years, as grownup brothers and sisters, we all know better. As mature citizens we “get it” that all people and minorities are equal. Nevertheless, I can imagine some adults devaluing people with handicaps. I am not excusing this, especially from non-handicapped staff; I’m just saying this can happen.

The scene: at a kitchen table, wheelchair accessible. On one side, using power wheelchairs, two clients, a man and a woman, are sitting with their feet under the table. On the other side, one of their roommates sits leaning forward, holding his ipad to show them. He is displaying a picture of gorgeous frothy water at granite falls, explaining to them how he had used a very delayed exposure, and a neat lens filter, after hiking past the falls… He thinks they would genuinely care to know about his life, his hikes, and his craft of photography—And he cares for their good opinion of him.

A week later, I chanced to see the man alone, as he was looking through the camera lens of his cellphone. I said I liked how he explained things to his roommates because, I told him, the staff at the client’s Day Program never would. The man was startled: “You’re kidding!” I wish I was.

Perhaps, if I were charitable, I might say the Day Program staff were a little overworked with red tape, and pressured into behaving like adolescents, adolescents who may walk along in a group of three with two of them behaving as if “two’s company and three’s a crowd,” rudely ignoring the third person. But I don’t want to make excuses for them.
Because the man looked so startled, and because I don’t work Day Program myself, I thought I’d better do a “reality check.” The next day three of us were sitting outside on the sundeck, two in their power wheelchairs, and me in a kitchen chair I had dragged outside. We were enjoying the sunshine; I was reading aloud some full-page sports section features about a fired NHL coach (They are hockey fans) I also had them laughing from my book How to Walk in High Heels. I took a break from reading aloud to ask them about the Day Program staff: Would the staff share their lives?

“They are stuck up” was the bitter answer, adding that if a staff had a cool photograph on her cell phone then she would show it to other staff, not to any clients. Bitter. They named one staff, just one, who was not stuck up. ...In fairness, they would have named other staff too if given time to think.

I would guess this is a problem with Day Programs all across our time zone. It’s too easy to devalue people: Not a problem that can be fixed with measureable paperwork. Things like lapsing into using a foreign language in front of clients, is a problem to be solved not by paperwork, but by building an agency culture.

For creating a good culture, paperwork could be a false goal, a serious distraction, a golden calf. Equally bad: Filling out forms during working hours, in front of clients, can be a serious misuse of man-hours and energy—you can’t be socializing and explaining your life and valuing when your back is bent over a paper. Unfortunately, in very recent years I have seen the pressure of paperwork always increasing, never decreasing. (No jagged graph line) The pressure gage needle seems to only go one way. Once the needle goes into the red line, something has to give: And then it’s the culture, and it’s the clients, who suffer.

It makes me shudder, but at least no one’s being killed. I am reminded of the war in Vietnam. Remember? Everyone in Canada and the U.S., including our armed representatives overseas, agreed that communism was evil; we all agreed we had to “win the hearts and minds” of the villagers, converting the South Vietnamese to preferring democracy over communism… but the villages, one by one, went over to the dark side. Such a waste.

Why would the villagers “go communist” even as we were giving candy to their children and patrolling among them? Because we failed them.

Because for us our paperwork was easier to “measure” and fill out. Valuing red tape was easier for us than trying to build the hard-to-measure culture of, say, socializing as an equal to win the hearts and minds.  Instead of "honour, duty country" it was easy to focus on measurable things like the dead enemy “body count.” Easy to create a culture of filling out forms—even as the brave young soldiers in the field thought the attention to forms, especially the wimpy “cover your ass” sort —which the men derided as CYA— was losing the war: The young men called silly forms “chicken droppings.” But who would ever ask them for their opinion?

Easier to default to being a typical “Ugly American” than to think of human equality, or work on having a culture of excellence and professionalism.

When I look at Day Programs across this time zone, I wonder how many leaders prefer ever increasing amounts of red tape, including CYA, for giving leaders external control over staff, including a culture of fear "we have to prove to the government" rather than creating a culture where each staff member is a “professional” having internal control. I don’t know. I am just one small toy soldier surrounded by madness.

Out on the sundeck I cheerfully tell my clients: “The way to learn to walk in high heels is to push a shopping cart at the supermarket.” We laugh.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains
July 2016

~ “But who would ask their opinion?” According to history, neither soldiers nor civilians were asked. One day some very experienced, knowledgeable young war correspondents in Vietnam were given the chance, as a little group, to talk privately with the minister of defense, Robert McNamara. Sounds too good to be true? It is. The journalists were forbidden to say anything about the military situation. (Only about the economic situation)

Maybe I’m getting too cynical about our ability to reform, for I see I’ve deleted that incident from my essay Halberstam was a Harbinger, archived June 2015.

~ As for the U.S. forces in South Vietnam, the marines did significantly better at winning “hearts and minds” than the army did. Someday I hope a graduate student will research this difference. (The research could then be used for supporting persons with disabilities in their natural communities, and for valuing communities in the homeland (maybe we could ask if there's a good reason they do drugs) during the War on Drugs)

~ Truly, I have a strong impression the government disabilities department I mention above does not make their new improved plans in cooperation with stakeholders, but instead merely draws up their plans within hothouse government walls, and then announces orders… I realize that sounds crazy; I will not speculate here on why this could be possible.