Current Events

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December 11: “Train from Kansas City”, Neko Case (Shangri-Las)

Posted by on 11 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Current Events, Music and Arts

This song doesn’t make sense without the two public services currently under attack in Canada: passenger rail and the mail. They’re being strangled off in the same way: starve them of necessary funding so service degrades and the public turns against the service, then move in and axe even more service, secure in the knowledge that this will be supported by those who already gave up on the service you made worse in the first place. Do it, if possible, after the House of Commons has risen so there will be no debate and little coverage. Extra points for splitting up urban and rural service levels, if possible, so that in the future any critics of cuts to services in the places where most Canadians live (that would be cities) can be made to sound like whiny elitists.

Make no mistake: the goal is to kill public services, not just reduce them. There was a plan to reduce mail service a few months ago — remember? Trial balloons were floated about reducing home delivery to three times a week. That’s a reduction. Spending money to build infrastructure so that home delivery can be treated as obsolete is not a reduction, it’s a transformation. The goal is to shrink the service until it is no longer useful enough to justify keeping at all, and nobody waves goodbye.

Well, you say, and I’ve read, I hardly get any mail these days anyway. I’m fully online. Well, bully for you. What is important, and will affect you in some way, at some time, is that the end goal of this is the replacement of a public service — free home mail delivery — by one that is not provided publicly — internet delivery.

And, you might say, my tax dollars could be better spent than subsidizing mail delivery or passenger rail service. Sure — except they won’t be. The goal is not to free up money to spend on other initiatives. The goal of our current federal government (imitated in remarkably clumsy form by the Ford administration) is to shrink the size of government overall.

Well, you might say, I don’t benefit from these things personally. And, we should all say back, that’s interesting, but that’s actually not how society works. My tax dollars subsidize your kids’ education; your tax dollars subsidize the three-times-a-week whistle stop some vision-impaired senior boards in Sinclair Mills, B.C.

Sounds like the train from Kansas City is in trouble, too.

December 5: “Free Nelson Mandela,” The Special AKA

Posted by on 05 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Current Events, Music and Arts

I’m sure there are radio stations playing “Sun City” tonight in their reports on the late Nelson Mandela and his extraordinary life as an anti-apartheid leader and the first democratic president of South Africa, but around here, it’s The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela”. This is an energetic romp that you can enjoy without having the slightest idea what or who Nelson Mandela is, and I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it — either at school dance or on CFNY — that was the case. At the same time, the song gives you the highlights of the story (to that point, anyway) in a few short verses:

21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused, but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see (I say)

Free Nelson Mandela

(I’m begging you)

Pleaded the causes of the ANC
Only one man in a large army
Are you so blind that you cannot see
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear him (it’s clear)

If you don’t want to know more after hearing that, with horns and pennywhistle and back-up singers, there’s something wrong with you.

The cover of the copy of the “Free Nelson Mandela” single I have is exactly what you want for a message song: black and white, no nonsense, big photo, and extensive text on both the front:

FreeNMcover     photo copy

… and the back, picking up  the story where the song leaves off.


I went to see Nelson Mandela when he came to Toronto in 1990. After hearing so much about him for years I was amazed to see that in the flesh he was a normal-, not super-sized person, even smaller than some of the dignitaries on stage with him. He went to New York for a visit shortly thereafter and wore an all-Yankees uniform for several days of his American tour. Rest in peace, Nelson. Amandla Ngawhetu.

The infantilization of childhood

Posted by on 17 Mar 2011 | Tagged as: Current Events

On the radio the other day, a CBC host gamely ad-libbed in an interview about the catastrophe in Japan, asking the interviewee’s children, in Japan, were coping:

“What about the seven-year-old? At seven, children are aware of some things.”

“Some things?” A seven-year-old is hardly just learning to focus his or her eyes. At seven, kids might not understand the “why” — if there is one to understand — but if their house falls down or their town is inundated with water or they have to, as shown in one popular photo, go back to their destroyed house and load up a carrier bag with all their wordly goods, yeah, they’ll definitely notice.

An article in the Globe and Mail a few days later featured a psychologist of some sort recommending that parents consider, because of the special horror of the Japan situation, shielding their children up to 12 from seeing anything about it on TV. Can a 12-year-old grade 7 student really get by school without an awareness of current events?

Baby, meet bathwater

Posted by on 27 May 2010 | Tagged as: Current Events, Small people

At first glance this makes a good deal of sense:

Bill would protect kids from drug endangerment

The bill would make it a separate offence to “drug endanger” a child. It would establish drug-endangered children as a category in need of protection. It would also add drug endangerment as a form of child abuse under the Child and Family Services Act, Dunlop said Wednesday.

Endangerment would include exposing a child to the manufacturing or production of an illegal drug, as well as any substance that is used to make illegal drugs, he said.

Obviously, having little kids living in houses that are meth labs or grow ops is a poor idea.

It’s the “any substance that is used to make illegal drugs” clause that worries me here. Lots of perfectly normal household substances go into drug manufacture — alcohol, acetone, paint thinner, camp-stove fuel, gasoline, some kinds of cold/allergy pills, and so on. It seems to me that many a fishing expedition could be carried out under such a law: “Your Honour, we found no less than SIX such substances in the house! Think of the chiiiiiiildren!”

Surely social services and the law already have sufficient other tools to cope with the Crack-House Kid problem?

The poignant, poignant pain of eating on $225 a month

Posted by on 09 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: Current Events, Food and Wine

Apparently OSAP allows $7.50 a day, or roughly $225 a month, for a student food allowance. The Star is reporting on the extreme hardship this produces, and four intrepid students, risking starvation and perhaps even the odd foray into their own kitchens, are blogging their attempt to comply with this limit for three agonizing weeks.

One of these students felt the need to supplement this:

To cut costs, Crane will seek one of the $25 emergency grocery vouchers Brock’s student union offers cash-strapped students; this year it has upped the number of vouchers to 105 from 75 last year because of the recession.

so she now (lucky thing) has the slightly lesser horror of feeding herself on $250 a month instead of $225.

Right about now every single person living on welfare is rolling their eyes so hard they may be able to see out the backs of their heads.

I think back to fourth year, when K. and I each allocated $75 a month to groceries — $105.27 in current dollars — and we ate very well. Lots of seasonal fruit and veggies, yogurt, a little meat, lots of home-made muffins… and yes, pasta and rice but certainly not the “cheap carbo-loading” mentioned in the article as necessary. We often, as I recall, had money left over at the end of the month (with which we bought wine).

I might also look at our current grocery spending. On average I spend about $100 a week on groceries for the three of us, so that’s $400 for the month. Every two weeks a $55 box of organic milk, eggs and veggies is delivered; another $110. And we probably spend about another $100 on wine — Well, to be generous let’s call it $150 to cover off the odd bottle of fizzy and/or a decent LBV. $400 + $110 + $150 = $660 a month.

OSAP would allow $7.50 x 30 x 3 = $675.

To be clear, I’m not denying the challenges inherent in trying to live on the utterly inadequate amount OSAP provides if it’s your only source of income, and I won’t for a second defend a student loan system that saddles young graduates with absurdly large debts. But moaning about a $7.50-a-day food allowance isn’t going to garner much sympathy from me — or, I suspect, from the many students who are stuck feeding themselves on much, much less. ($1 a day: that’s hard.)

Come on kids: drop the entitlement and get cooking.

Blame the victim (again and again)

Posted by on 26 Jan 2010 | Tagged as: Current Events, Toronto

Even when the circumstances in pedestrian deaths clearly point to driver error, Toronto police don’t hesitate to point the finger at the person who wasn’t behind the wheel of the vehicle:

Sgt. Tim Burrows said the victim was crossing slightly west of the crosswalk at the intersection.

“It’s difficult to determine who is at fault,” he said. But he added the pedestrian was crossing in a way that was “not predictable and not the safest place to be” but was walking on a green light.

“I’d rather just say that road safety is a shared responsibility and everyone has to do their part and abide by the laws and common sense.”

I’m sure that’s what he’d rather say, because to say otherwise would suggest that the pedestrian was not at fault and, like the vast majority of those struck down by cars in the last couple of weeks, had every right to expect to make it across the street alive if every user of the road was alert and obeying traffic law.

However, it’s just dishonest. If the pedestrian was crossing Davenport “slightly west of the crosswalk” while the car coming north on Symington was turning left, i.e. west, on a green light, the driver could not have been looking while making the turn or else she (as the story reports her to be) would have seen the pedestrian. Take a look at the intersection in Google Street View if you doubt me.

Comments sections of the major papers, always depressing, are full of self-righteous drivers who complain of pedestrians who “dart in or out of traffic.” Toronto police seem to have decided that, all evidence to the contrary, this “darting” phenomenon is the cause of pedestrian-car accidents and is pulling walkers aside to reprimand them for jay-walking — which, of course, is legal as long as you’re not right beside a crosswalk. Wouldn’t it make more sense to educate drivers on that point so they’re keeping an eye out for legal crossers? Perhaps the fact that most of the accidents have actually happened at crosswalks is telling? And I know it’s a lost cause, but perhaps some real, sustained traffic enforcement is a thought?

Interesting example

Posted by on 04 Dec 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events

Another day, another woe-is-Gen Y story. In all seriousness, Canada’s poor mechanisms of getting new graduates into the workforce are an ongoing problem. But this latest story on the front page of the Report on Business isn’t particularly compelling:

Elizabeth Adams, 24, knows all about timing. She recently graduated with a fine arts degree and hoped for a career as a painter or a photographer in Peterborough, Ont. But she’s failed to find work in her field.

What, really? There are so many things wrong with this, it’s almost hard to know where to start. Elizabeth: it’s not timing, it’s your field. How many jobs as “painter” are there, ever? Or even gallery positions? And in Peterborough(population 135,000)?

Apparently forethought isn’t one of the skills they should plan to share

Posted by on 16 Nov 2009 | Tagged as: Business, Current Events

Ah, woe. Carol Goar reports that retiring baby boomers plan to spend time volunteering, but:

But for the most part, the non-profit sector is not waiting with open arms for retired baby boomers with skills to share and time to spare.

“Logically, it should be a great opportunity,” says Michael Hall, vice-president of Imagine Canada, the umbrella organization for charities and non-profit organizations across the country. “But few organizations have the infrastructure to manage volunteers.

“You need to orient them, assist them and integrate them into your team. But where are the resources? Most organizations are stretched thin.”

Mmmhmm. And who, one might ask, was in charge a decade ago when nonprofits were told to “act more like businesses,” convert to a contract basis and stretch themselves so very thin, resulting in the current lack of capacity to manage volunteers?

Yeah. Boomers.

Ernie and Bert were always pretty racy

Posted by on 13 Sep 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events

Infamous subway-riding 9-year-old’s mother Lenore Skenazy details her questionable viewing habits:

We got the DVD set of Sesame Street from the early years. It shows kids just having fun in groups, playing on a vacant lot, playing on the playground and playing follow the leader. Before any of this is shown to you, there’s a warning: “For adult viewing only.” In just one generation, the idea of what’s safe and normal and ideal has changed.

Eight years on

Posted by on 11 Sep 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events

This is how I felt that day: like something might come swooping down out of the sky at any time, that no place was safe, not the streets I walked along in my new high heels (heading out of the financial district: the streetcars were jammed, traffic at a standstill). When I walked along Bloor St. the sky was blue and sunny and the mood ominous with every store’s door open and every radio tuned to the same station with the same terrible news.

The Economist’s headline later in the week was “The Day the World Changed,” and I thought, as I looked at the peaceful pastel photo of a slow-motion jet careening toward the World Trade Center, that I hadn’t wanted it to.

It was quieter than ever without the jets overhead those few days – I think I was on a flight path, though it hadn’t really occurred to me before – but all the remaining sound seemed a million times louder. And then, for ages, everything seemed more sinister: a plane overhead too loud, a mysterious shutdown of the subway, flickering lights in my old house, sirens. All the everyday sounds of the city, and of an unattacked city at that, now frightening, peace-disturbing.

September 1999

When the buildings were bombed in Moscow it was the reaction I found frightening: the uniformed militia on the street, the guns they carried, their grim faces. The explosions were terrifying enough, to be sure – while you slept, terrorists might come and blow up your nondescript apartment building — and the targets were all in wooded suburban areas, just like mine. But it was the reaction afterward that kept the fear going, the soldiers marching two by two around the blocks, the empty streets, the suspicious looks when you threw even a gum wrapper into a rare garbage can. Everything was touched. I got off the subway to change trains and a soldier halfway up the stairs barked out orders to another who pulled darkish men away to have their papers checked: Him! To the left!

But somehow less terrifying for me to be in Moscow while terrorists worked in September 1999 than to be a thousand miles from New York in September 2001.

The night after the second apartment building in Moscow was bombed – another couple hundred killed in their beds, white faces on people in the metro, talk of a state of emergency, “cherezsluchayniye sitzuatzia” – I was watching the television news, one program after another. ORT for an hour, then RTR, NTV, TV6. I lived in a furnished apartment with another Canadian girl who had been AWOL for the first month and only occasionally home since. The television was a clunker, a 19-or-more-inch that broadcast everything in sepia. And then, that night, as I was halfway through my evening ritual of language improvement (by the third or fourth newscast, I could be sure I was understanding the news of the day with some accuracy), the British owner of the TV set arrived out of the blue to take it back.

After he left I felt slightly scared. Seeing video of reporters in front of already-bombed buildings, uninterrupted by breaking news of other terakti, had been somewhat comforting. Sitting in the kitchen, staring at the fading green-and-brown striped wallpaper while trying to find Ekho Moskvi, the talk radio station, less so.

Some apartments arranged shifts to guard their buildings 24-hours-a-day. It never took off in my building, where for much of the day and early evening there was sure to be someone outside in the lane in front of the building working on a Lada anyway, or the man in heavy black-framed glasses and fatigues doing something with his army transport truck, his mean-looking , sweet-natured German shepherd nearby. I once left the house early in the morning on my way to work and, seeing the dog, backed up pathetically to the building’s entrance again, murmuring, tremulously, “please… I’m scared of dogs… please.” The fatigue(d) man had looked at me in exasperation and assured me the dog was good, gentle, while I cowered nearby. He grabbed the dog by the collar and put it in my path, poor sad lame thing, leg in a cast. That fucking dog made me shake; I couldn’t even imagine how to be scared of random Chechen terrorists.


Later that year the spectre of terrorism touched my life again. I was on my way home with a stopover in Paris, where the major airport, as many in the U.S. would go on to do, had abolished its luggage checkroom after some bombs in the late eighties/early nineties. Not knowing this, and having planned a four-day stopover, and being met by a friend who knew a convenient route into town on the metro, I ended up dragging six months of my life through a street market in a left bank arrondissement to the hotel. In Tokyo, where, in very precise fashion, garbage cans had been eliminated from the actual subway lines where the sarin gas attack of 1996 had taken place, but not from the many connecting and very analogous commuter train lines, I’d ended each day with pockets full of sticky wrappers, an irritating but not back-breaking inconvenience.

Japan figured into my second terrorist-prompted inconvenience in France, when at the airport the Air France agent checking passports as we boarded the plane flipped through my half-empty Canadian passport looking for something of interest after my unexciting answers to her questions.
“Ahhh… Narita,” she said pointedly. “What were you doing in Narita?”
“I was working in Tokyo. As a teacher.”
“Na-REE-ta,” she said again, turning the passport sideways and upside down. “Narita.”
I might be there still, listening to her hypnotise herself with the magic Japanese name again and again, if I hadn’t grabbed the passport from her hands and proceeded to give my boarding pass to the agent behind her. I was steaming with indignation, halfway through writing a complaint on the tear-out card in the Air France magazine when the Scottish Airbus engineer who was my seatmate arrived.
“Bad flight?” he asked, nodding toward the complaint card. I began to reply but left it as an indignant yelp. After a gin and tonic I’d relaxed and we engaged a game to see just how long the attendant call button could be lit without an Air France flight attendant stopping by. We had to call it quits after an hour and forty-five minutes because I was laughing too hard.

The Special Forces

But what comes to my mind next is another funny story that isn’t really funny. A few years earlier, in Russia, sometime in the autumn, which ends early in St. Petersburg, so let’s say September. I was taking an intensive Russian program at the university and living in a huge dormitory, the obshezhitzye, on a road whose name I couldn’t pronounce on the Gulf of Finland. A thousand students maybe, or hundreds at least, not all students, most Russian, but lots of foreigners in town for different courses. There was security at the obshezhitzye, a turnstile with a plexiglassed kiosk next to it, just like in the metro. The kiosk was staffed by a woman in a flowered pinafore and her husband, who always appeared to be drunk. At night sometimes grandpa came on the shift, while during the day sometimes three or four family members crowded in the kiosk, at no point appearing to pay the slightest attention to anyone going in or out.

Not that it mattered, because all the rooms – miniature suites, really, of two or more bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom – had large steel doors, just like a prison. Apart from the heroin addicts who showed up from time to time to take their stash hidden in the fire extinguisher cabinet at the end of the hall – and the tall black-leather jacketed men who had showed up and kicked the door to the apartment opposite the cabinet, which seemed to have some connection to the heroin (never was I more glad that my name was not Sasha) – the obshezhityze was a calm and secure place. There were two telephones in the entire building and the French female students tried to establish order over the phone chaos by putting up neat schedules for expected calls, which everyone else ignored.

But one day, while I was at class, terrorism struck the obshezhitzye. Actually, not terrorism, although there was some momentary terror involved, all at the hands of the finest special troops, the OMON. Unexpectedly, at some point in the mid-afternoon, a bus rolled up and troops in fatigues (different ones from those described above, more colourful ones, OMON ones) poured out. They ran in some kind of formation, machine guns at the ready, taking positions in order to storm the building. The few residents coming in and out scattered, hiding behind garbage bins and parked Chaikas nearby. No word on what steps the kiosk family took, their authority could not have been difficult to overrun. The poor students who were at home hid themselves under beds, unsure as to what was happening – was there a dangerous criminal on the loose? (Perhaps an even angrier drug dealer.) Or were the OMON hunting down the residents themselves?

Eventually, exercise completed, the special forces troops packed up and left. There was not a trace of their reign of terror by the time I returned from my classes.

The day the world changed

And what is the point to all this reminiscence? In part to point out that at one time terrorism was a foreign novelty, something slightly disturbing that could be left behind by sitting on a plane for eight hours, something to add colour to dinner-party stories about travelling.

And perhaps the point I’m making is that it all seems abstract and overblown when it’s not you that’s the target. Ask any Canadian.

I laugh about it. We all do, especially now, after eight years of packing toiletries in clear plastic bags and shuffling through the airport in holey socks. But there is always a tremor of tension somewhere in my body, one that wasn’t there the day before the day my world changed.

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