Hope and hard work

I drove away from my house a little after 9:30 this morning to do my usual Saturday morning provisioning at the farmers market. So when I turned on the radio, Chris Hall of CBC's The House was already in mid-interview with someone from the federal government. I guessed—correctly—that the interviewee was Dominic LeBlanc, the government house leader. And he was...answering questions! Not all of them, but most of them, giving straight responses with no obfuscation. At least once he said "That's a good question" and proceeded to honour the good question with a good answer. At one point when he didn't answer (and didn't pretend to), Hall asked again, saying, "Just between you and me," and LeBlanc laughed and said "You and me and about two million of your listeners, right?" It was very much a political interview, with Hall asking direct and sometimes pointed questions, but there was an openness to the whole thing that was striking.

I thought maybe I should pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

That's a sad commentary really. This kind of exchange between a national affairs correspondent and a government minister should not have seemed exceptional. Yet after almost a decade of hostility, stonewalling, and often complete bullshit (former foreign minister John Baird being one of the few Conservative ministers who seemed relatively at ease and forthcoming in interviews), it was absolutely refreshing to hear the obvious change of tone.

LeBlanc didn't know the answer to a question about specifics of the troop training deployment in Iraq and Syria because he was waiting for a decision from the Minister of Defence. He brought up several other cabinet colleagues who were clearly very hands-on with their portfolios. He spoke of having a discussion with the leader of the Conservative caucus in the Senate and with the leader of the Senate Liberals (technically no longer a caucus) about the role of the Senate as currently configured and how a Conservative majority in the upper house would handle legislation from a Liberal government.

I spent the years of Conservative minorities warning about what would happen if the Conservatives won a majority, and the last four years helping cite the abuses that the Harper government was perpetrating. It was a surprisingly uphill battle. For a long time, many people seemed to have thought that things weren't so bad, that they were really okay, and that the new normal was fine or even inevitable. Since the election, I have seen so many with a palpable sense of relief at the change in the government and in the country. It's that stark. I read someone saying that the defeat of Stephen Harper and the end of his tenure as Prime Minister was like getting away from an abusive partner. You don't know just how bad it was until it stops.

Certainly the new government is far from perfect. Except among the media, whose job it is to be skeptical, and some of the chattering classes, who do what they do, the Trudeau honeymoon seems not to have finished. But the government faces huge issues, those they promised to deal with as well as things they did not anticipate. The Prime Minister will inevitably disappoint some. Rookie ministers will make mistakes. And that is especially true because we are not just back to the status quo ante. In many ways, Canada is back. But in many more ways, this is a government of new ideas. Some of those will run aground on the shoals of reality and changed circumstances, but I think that with this new generation of politicians we might see some changes that we really do like and have been needing for a long time.

I am cautiously, realistically excited. Is that possible?

I have even applied to work with the transition team, despite being able to see the light of retirement at the end of the work tunnel. Somehow I think my lack of direct government or political experience and my fair-to-middlin' command of French will not put me high on any minister's list of potential employees, but who knows. I even said I would be willing to relocate to Ottawa. And I hate winter! But I have always wanted to go ice skating on the Rideau Canal. And right now, Ottawa is where it's happening.

Whether I am in Ottawa or, much more likely, here in Vancouver, I really am realistic. But I am also really excited. This is Barack Obama time for Canada, except I think this government might be even more forward-looking and has the advantage of a majority in the House rather than a hostile Congress. I'm actually anticipating the Speech from the Throne and for the House to be in session again. Let's get to work! We have a lot to undo and a lot to do.


Open letter to PMJT

Dear Prime Minister,

By now we all know about the attacks by Daesh on civilians in Beirut and Paris. We also know, and have known, that Daesh continues to wreak havoc in Iraq and Syria and to execute people every day. Slaughter is nothing new to them. We should not only now be paying attention to it.

Recently, I have seen many calls for Canada to change the foreign policy stance that was set out in the Liberal platform and that you have shown every indication of following. I have seen calls for you to change your mind about bombing and to toughen Canada’s response to terrorism. I have even seen calls to "put boots on the ground," that facile phrase usually uttered by those who will never have to create an effective strategy for those boots and whose own boots will remain safely (so far) in Canada.

No one seems to know what will truly be effective against Daesh. After bombing, including by Canadian forces, and fighting on the ground for years, Daesh is still a viable fighting force holding territory and pushing beyond it. The current flurry of cries are all of the "do something" variety. There is no question that a response is required. But a poor response would be a mistake.

I trust you and your government to hold to the principles you articulated so eloquently—and strongly—in your ministerial mandate letters. I trust you to keep your head while others seem to have fallen into macho outrage.

I understand the outrage. I understand the grief. I understand the desire to "do something."

But if that something does nothing more than make us feel good, and especially if it ends up doing more harm than good, then we must resist the temptation to react and, I daresay, play into the intentions of Daesh, and instead hold to our determination to act in ways that will actually help.

One change I do urge is for Canada to cancel sales of military hardware, even light-armoured vehicles, to Saudi Arabia. Not only is that equipment used in Saudi Arabia's ongoing violation of the civil rights of its own people; it is also well known that Saudi Arabia funds Sunni extremists, all the while smiling and pretending to be our friend. We must not be in the position of helping those who repress their own people and aid those who wish to destroy others near and far.

I urge you to continue to look for effective ways of dealing with the violence of terrorism and the destruction wrought by war. I trust that you will. We must use what power we have to find ways to undercut Daesh and not just strike back at it.

However we respond, we must not lose the Canada we love just as we are starting to regain it. I think you feel the same way. Thank you.




The woman who knew too much

(If life disturbs you, don't read this. There's my warning.)

I had considered myself fortunate. Unlike too many other people I know, I had never been sexually assaulted. At least that's what I thought until just a few days ago. For some reason, I recalled an incident that happened many years ago. I had never forgotten it. I was just thinking about it again. And it struck me, as it never had before, that the incident was sexual assault.

Not a club I actually wanted to join.

What happened was not asked for, nor was it wanted. It violated boundaries. It violated trust.

I didn't stop it. I could have. At least I think so. But I was in a vulnerable situation, and it happened quickly. I was caught off guard, unprepared. And then it was over.

I didn't think of it as assault at the time. And I wasn't hurt, not physically. It wasn't my doing or my fault, and I never blamed myself. I just thought of it as a vaguely disturbing thing that happened. That I had allowed to happen. That might be a big part of why I never considered it assault.

Now it's in me in a whole new way.

I'm not trying to recast something innocent as something sinister. It wasn't innocent. It was not malicious, but it was definitely a transgression. I just hadn't really known what to call it. I've learned a lot since then. Now I know.

(Just so you know: We're not talking about Sweetie here. Anyone who is acquainted with us would know that, but I want to make sure it's clear to everyone.)

I'm still very fortunate, just not quite as fortunate as I thought I was. I'm okay. I don't think the incident altered the course of my life. I don't think of myself as a survivor. As I said, I wasn't physically harmed. There was nothing to survive, not like someone who escapes from a burning building or makes it home safely from a war—or lives with the memory of any traumatic experience. I don't consider that incident to have involved violence. A violation, to be sure, but not violence. That would devalue the real violence that too many experience.

Your mileage may vary. And it's not for me to say what's true for anyone else.

Now I'm trying to figure out what to do with this realization. Because I can't un-realize it. I'm not traumatized. I'm not suffering. But it's a thought that's staying with me now. I can't forget it. But can I let it go?


It's not easy being red

Even though I have been interested in electoral politics since I was a kid, I had never been a political party joiner. I had briefly been a member of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the States only because membership happened automatically as soon as you voted in a primary. Usually I voted in the Democratic primary, but in 1980 many people voted in the Republican primary to cast a ballot for John Anderson. Normally you could unregister as soon as you had voted, but that year there were so many people doing the same thing as I did that the polling station ran out of forms. It took me years to get off the Republican mailing list!

When I became a Canadian citizen in 1997, I had no thought of joining a political party. I briefly belonged to Gordon Wilson's quixotic provincial party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance, but when he sold his soul to Glen Clark for a cabinet post, that was the end of the PDA and of my involvement in provincial parties. But I had always had an affinity for the Liberal Party of Canada, an affinity that really went all the way back to when Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister (and we were stuck with Richard Nixon). I generally liked what the government of Jean Chrétien was doing, fending off a takeover by the International Monetary Fund by making severe cuts, getting the books in order (which was hard on a lot of people, I know), and then restoring a bunch of spending. (For a great behind-the-scenes look at what went on, see Double Vision: The Inside Story of the Liberals in Power by Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith) I knew nothing of internal Liberal battles. I liked Paul Martin as well as Chrétien. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to like both!

I joined the party in 2006 because I wanted a say in selecting a leader to replace Martin. I attended an event in downtown Vancouver in which all of the contenders made brief pitches. I remember being impressed by Martha Hall-Findlay. Ken Dryden's passion for the country was inspiring! I thought Scott Brison and Bob Rae came off well. Stéphane Dion wasn't bad, Gerard Kennedy was meh, and Michael Ignatieff was a stiff. Not long after that, it became apparent that the race was really among Dion, Ignatieff, and Rae. I backed Dion because I liked his focus on the environment. I also chatted with him a couple of times. He wasn't good on the stump, but he was intelligent and well-spoken in person. I had run as a delegate, but I was not selected to go to the convention in Montreal. I was listening to the radio in the car when I heard that Dion had come up the middle and won the leadership. I had to pull over because I was crying so hard!

Sadly, Dion proved to be a disappointment as leader. I don't remember there even being much if any contest when Ignatieff took over. He was a disaster, leading the party to its worst ever defeat and a rump of 34 seats.

The next leadership contest featured some new faces. Hall-Findlay was still there, and she was my first choice, but on the preferential ballot I also selected Justin Trudeau, Joyce Murray, and a fourth choice (I think). It seemed obvious that Trudeau was going to win, and although I wasn't that impressed with him, I thought it might not be bad to get back a bit of star-factor. And the more I learned about him, the more I saw how he operated, the more impressed I became. At an event in Vancouver, I carefully wormed my way through the throng and put myself in just the right place to shake his hand and say a few words. I was never star-struck. But I did think he could be a winner.

It all turned out rather well as far as I'm concerned. Quite a number of my friends and acquaintances disagree, sometimes in ways that are hard to take. But Liberals have to develop a thick skin, take the blows, and prove the critics and cynics wrong—or eat crow if our leaders fail or bail out. At this point, I'm cautiously hopeful that the new government will produce real and necessary change. Given time, I guess I'll look back to see whether this post was naive or prophetic.


Soothe a savage breast

Musick has Charms to soothe a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
(William Congreve, The Mourning Bride)

I make music because I have to. It's as vital to my well-being as eating or sleeping.

Music is communication, reaching out to other people and to the world at large. I communicate in many different ways, but I always feel that music is the most important way. And communication is not a solitary activity. It depends on others being receptive of the communication. That's why although I greatly enjoy playing music by and for myself (and one must write and practise, after all), I must continue to record and play music in public, for the public, for as long as I am able, and hope that I can find some kind of audience.

Music isn't just an outward activity, however. For me, it is also therapeutic.

I have done my share of cognitive-behavioural therapy. CBT is quite effective for a lot of things, notably dealing with irrational fears (phobias). Because the fears are irrational, learning to think about them differently can defuse their power. There are a lot of problems that are really about how we think about things, and those can be helped by CBT.

But what if the problem is not you? What if feeling bad is actually an appropriate response? What if the world around you really is fucked up? What if you've done the things you should to reach out and form networks and yet you're still lonely and isolated? What if you've done what you can to change yourself and you really can't or shouldn't do any more? What if there are things you can't control and no amount of changing yourself is going to make you feel better?

You don't want to world to crush you. You want to develop at least some amount of toughness. But you don't want to learn to tolerate the intolerable. You don't want to deaden your own soul just so you can avoid being hurt by the outside world.

I'm in favour of psychotherapy of whatever kind works for you, if that's what works for you. It has worked for me before. But I seem now to be at the point where I have to help myself in my own way, because no therapist really gets me. So, music. Okay, sometimes a bit of self-medication as well, sometimes in conjunction with music, but only a reasonable dosage.

Is music just another way of self-medicating? Sometimes I think it functions that way. But I think it's more. I'm not a person who gets angry very often, but I can express anger in songs. I can express all kinds of things in songs that I normally don't express in my life. Is this healthy? I don't know, but so far it seems to have given me a pretty good level of equilibrium. So I think it's a healthy outlet.

Being fucked up will not make you creative, and I think it's possible to be creative without being fucked up. But it does often seem that creative people are at least somewhat fucked up, and certainly if you're fucked up being creative seems to be a good way to handle it. So I will keep making music. It's not free—equipment and studio time cost money—but it usually feels more like money well spent than paying a therapist.


Sidewalks of democracy

In case you hadn't noticed or live outside of Canada, we're one week away from a federal election. Here are some things I observed (or thought about) whilst distributing campaign pamphlets for the local Liberal Party candidate for Parliament:
  • In an east-west direction I covered 12 long blocks on both sides and eight more on one side only (the boundaries of the area). North-south I covered eight somewhat shorter blocks on both sides, four shorter blocks on one side only, and four shorter blocks on one side that was pretty much all commercial buildings or apartment blocks. That's 32 long blocks (each side) and 20 shorter blocks (plus four). I walked for close to five hours over two afternoons. This afternoon it was raining lightly.
  • There is a variety of houses in that neighbourhood. Judging by the houses, people in the neighbourhood are generally well off or at least solidly middle class. Two small houses are designated heritage houses, just as ours is. Several had plaques showing the name of the house (usually the name of the first owner) and when it was built.
  • A few lots had new construction underway (the old house having been demolished). A few houses were undergoing renovation.
  • Some houses are well set back from the street. Some houses have quite a few stairs to climb. All of that adds to the distance. And if the city ever allows laneway housing, which it very well might, this job would get even harder.
  • If a gate was closed, I closed it behind me when I entered and when I left. You don't want to let out a dog or something (although I didn't see any). If a gate was open, I left it that way. Gates can be latched in a wide variety of ways.
  • I said hi to several kitties and gave skritches to a couple of friendly ones.
  • I saw quite a few lovely gardens and more water features (recirculating, I hope) than I expected. One was quite extensive, forming almost a mote in front of the house (no drawbridge). Some people had vegetables growing in their front yards, which is cool.
  • I saw evidence of chafer beetles. Chafers destroy the roots of turf grass, especially when the grass is growing in not enough topsoil (most often the case, because who has six to eight inches of topsoil?). Then raccoons, crows, and other critters that consider chafer beetles to be a tasty high-protein snack rip up the weakened lawn to get at the beetles, leaving it quite a mess. Many people replace their lawns with other plants, which is not a bad thing.
  • Halloween is only a few weeks away. Some people really love Halloween. I shook hands with a skeleton.
  • I saw maybe a dozen or 15 signs for the New Democratic Party candidate. I saw at least half as many for the Liberal Party candidate, which is more than I expected. I saw one sign for the Conservative Party candidate and none for the Green Party candidate. I left pamphlets at all of those houses. I figured the Liberal sign people might want to see the pamphlet, and the NDP and Conservative sign people might have a sign but are considering voting differently. It's a secret ballot, after all.
  • I already had plenty of respect for Canadian posties but even more now. Unlike the United States, we seem not to have any kind of standard configuration for mail delivery. Most people have regular boxes outside their door, thankfully. Some use rural mailboxes, also easy to use. Some have mail slots. Some of those mail slots are ancient. Several times I had to fold the pamphlet so it would fit through the slot. And some people seem to have no discernable way to receive mail. Maybe they have postal boxes?
  • Don't give up too easily on finding a mailbox. Sometimes it's hidden or camouflaged or just in an unexpected place.
  • Some people with mailboxes seem to pay little attention to their mail.
  • Some people have storm doors. I preferred to use the mail slot in the inside door so as not to just dump a leaflet on their doorstep, but some people lock their storm doors.
  • Some people not only don't want mail. Apparently they don't want visitors at all.There was one gate with a keypad. Another had no keypad but I couldn't find any way to open the gate.
  • Judging by path condition, debris, and overgrowth, some people rarely if ever use their front entrances.
  • Quite a few houses had sandals or slippers on the front porch.
  • I am not an agent, peddler, or salesman. I am a campaign volunteer.
  • The few people I spoke with were friendly. One person walking on the sidewalk even asked me for a leaflet, which I gave to him. Some people thanked me! I felt a little funny saying "you're welcome" when it's really me who's grateful they are accepting a political pamphlet. I seriously expected at least some hostility, but there was none.
  • A few houses had pretty good watchdogs. Barking and yapping to beat the band! I should have apologized to that one guy who came to the door after I left, His dogs got all riled up. I didn't mean to cause that!
  • The most popular monitored alarm brand in that neighbourhood is AlarmForce.
  • A couple of large, barking dogs that sound potentially dangerous are probably at least as good if not better than any alarm system. And you can tell it's not fake because you can here the claws on their giant paws on the floor. I'm glad I wasn't door-knocking!
  • I would suck at door-knocking, just as I was never any good at doing sales things when I was a kid. I'm good at chatting with strangers, but I don't want to walk up to their front door to do it. It feels so intrusive. I would make a terrible Jehovah's Witness! Or political candidate, I suppose.
  • I'm glad someone wants to run for office. Me, I'll just walk. Democracy is hard and can wear out your shoes and make your legs sore, but it's important. I always vote, but I was glad to be able to do a little more.


Stand and deliver

I've been using my hacked standing desk for only a week, but I'm already sensing differences.

Improved posture is definitely a plus. I don't automatically slouch in my chair, but it's easy to slump without being aware. Standing isn't an automatic improvement. I sometimes lean in too much. But it's pretty easy to keep myself straight and my shoulders relaxed. And even though leaning in is not good, it's not bad to lean on the table top from time to time. And sometimes I find that I stand with more weight on one foot or the other, just as I would normally.

Even though standing eliminates the problems endemic to sitting, it's not absolutely comfortable. My hips feel better, but my legs and feet pick up the slack. Anyone who stands all day (such as many service workers) will tell you that it's not easy. One thing that's important for me to remember is to keep my knees soft—slightly bent. Locking them is pretty generally bad for any kind of standing. I stand on a chair mat, a soft rubbery one, but I'm also standing most of the day in my slippers. I might need to wear something more supportive on my feet.

And of course I need to take breaks. Which I do, as I always did. Now I take some sitting breaks. The only problem is that while my cat can no longer sleep on my lap, he's quite content to take over the empty chair. He's a big guy, and he's not too good at sharing a corner of the chair so I can sit. But we're working it out.

I think standing has improved my focus, generally. Somehow that part of my desk now feels more like a workstation. My personal laptop is no farther away, but it's on a different level. The top surface is all work for all of the work time. I do find, however, that if I'm short of sleep, standing does not keep me more awake in the afternoon than sitting. There's really no remedy for lack of sleep other than to get more sleep.

The Lack coffee table is about 17 inches high and not adjustable. I'm pretty comfortable with the height because I'm used to my desk being a little higher than some. I have never liked "keyboard drawers," which feel too low for me. Still, this setup might be a bit too high. If I have to adjust, I will do so. This table was cheap, and it's not sacred. But if I cut some off the legs (after measuring twice, of course), I will also add some amount of height adjustment. Further fine adjustment might be necessary.

I wear prescription reading glasses that are not quite bifocals but are called "office glasses" because the top part magnifies a bit less than the bottom. That's so I can read what's close to me and also see my screen, which is farther away. Now, however. my screen is even a bit farther away than it used to be. So far, my glasses still seem to be doing the job, but it's something I'm aware of.

One reason my laptop is so far away is that I use my old Dell keyboard plugged into it because the small Lenovo keyboard with no numeric keypad doesn't work as well for what I do as the full-size keyboard. The laptop screen would certainly be closer if I didn't use that keyboard. I'm finding that the coffee table doesn't absorb sound as well as the heavier table below does, so I might want to get some kind of thin pad to put under the keyboard.

As someone with a chronically messy desk, I must say that I'm quite enamoured of the extra shelf space. More room for piles of stuff! I've also taken advantage of space to bring the main power strip up off the floor. No more crawling under my desk at 5:30 in the morning to turn on the juice.

It's early days, but so far I'd say this experiment is a success. There are downsides, but I think they are outweighed by the upsides. I've never really cared about how sitting is supposed to shorten my life, but I do care about pain in my hips and butt. I think we're going better on that and staying just a bit more active in the process. There's nothing that says I can't dance at my standing desk!