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Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Christmas - I like it

I like Christmas.  Sure, it’s become separated from the original message celebrating the birth of the messiah, a guy who lived in poverty and gave his life for the salvation of humankind.  Instead, we’re accused of worshipping at the altar of consumerism in the temple of our local mall where we seek solace from the emptiness of our existence in the purchase of stuff we may or may not ever use or need. But, I’ll just forget about all that for Christmas ‘cause for me, Christmas is all about tradition, thinking about others, however briefly, and the one time in the year, my family gets together in the same place at the same time. 

New baby with tree
I love the natural pine-fresh smell of our freshly cut tree we found in a restricted area next to a capped oil pump.  Every year we go out Christmas tree hunting, even the year Nicola was pregnant with our youngest and had experienced her first contractors earlier in the afternoon, a fact she failed to tell me ‘cause she’d had already had two babies and she knew when this one would come.  I have visions of sliding off one of the narrow forestry roads we were navigating in our crappy caravan without snow tires and our toddler girls being forever traumatized as I helped Nicola give birth in the back. 

What was Nicola’s reason for taking this risk besides a misplaced faith in the mechanical integrity of our van and my driving ability?  Tradition.  We went out for a tree every year, sometimes with a forestry permit, sometimes without.  We even found one when we lived north of the Arctic Circle in Fort Resolution.  Sure it was about four feet high and forty years old, but it was still a tree we’d cut and retrieved ourselves. Even my complaining every year when I have to put up the lights is a tradition.  The worst was when I strung them upside down with the light socket end at the top of the tree.  I’ve never made that mistake again. 

Road race set 
Obviously, Christmas traditions can have both a strength and a weakness particularly for the children.  At first, there’s that transition from childhood to being an adult.  Problems can go in either direction.  In grade 8, my friends and I were into road race sets.  Back then, they fitted on a track and would zoom around the track with the driver only able to control the speed.  I wanted nothing more than to get my own and Christmas was my big hope.  Instead, I got a hand blow-dryer for my hair that I could care less about because my parents figured that, because I was now becoming a young man, I would be concerned about my appearance.  I didn’t and I still don’t care about my hair and I still like toys.

Guy toys
As toddlers, each of my children received advent gifts in tiny stockings that would be hung along the wall.  Each day, Nicola would fill that day’s stocking with a little gift.  This was easy when they were young but became increasingly difficult as the tradition continued through high school and even into university when we’d drop off their stockings usually filled with age appropriate items like a miniature bottle of liquor or sometimes, a tiny toy or figurine like they would have received as children.  I don’t know how they felt about that just like I don’t know how the girls felt about me reading them bedtime stories until my eldest was in Grade 10 or 11.  Just like I don’t know how they feel about coming home for Christmas every year especially now that my eldest has a boyfriend in Britain where she now makes her home. 

There were the years we’d go to my wife or my parents’ house for Christmas.  Those could be hard.  Each have different traditions they value and want to maintain.  My mother always had difficulty when it was time to go home or the in-laws.  She always felt we should be staying a bit longer.  I don’t blame her.  I would have felt the same.  And Nicola’s mom wasn’t crazy about me so it took me a while to discover that, so long as I wasn’t around for the first day or two of our visit, my presence would be given much greater tolerance.

Grown kids with Russell, the dog
A problem with grown children as that they view their parents more as equals than persons that necessarily carry a wisdom that should be followed.  Frankly, having taught high school most of my adult life, I’m quite accustomed to the pessimism with which the young adult receives information or advice.  As a guidance counsellor, I rarely argued with students.  If they believe that something might cause them harm, I attempted to present alternative sources of information.  Otherwise, I’d just acknowledge their observation and then move on to provide information that might help them resolve their difficulties or help them achieve a goal.  That said, I found my conversations with these young adults could be as enlightening for me as I hope they were for them. 

Like the insights I used to receive from the young adults I taught and counselled, my children provide me with insights into me and my interests.  My son usually gives me a bottle of Scotch he thinks I should try or craft beers that he thinks are particularly good and he knows I wouldn’t normally purchase on my own or, for that matter, know to purchase.  My middle child usually gets me a toy, a gadget, or an accessory for a gadget which, I’m hesitant to admit are a bit of a weakness.  One year, she gave me a remote-control helicopter.  Another year, a car that I could control with my phone.  Last year, she gave me a case for the computer I’m presently using, an item of disproportionate value in my tiny universe. 

My eldest usually gets me a book or books.  Last year, she gave a book of 1000 books I should read
with descriptions of each.  Very helpful, particularly if I’m at a loss at to what to read, which can be often.  A couple of years ago, she gave me “One Man and His Bike: A Life-Changing JourneyAll the Way Around the Coast of Britain” by Mike Carter.  It’s a memoir that starts with Mike on his bike at a stop-light in London where he wonders, what if I didn’t turn left toward home.  What if I just kept riding straight until I reach the ocean and then continued on that road all the way round the coast of Britain until I return to this same spot.  So, that’s what he did for over 5000 miles.

I’ve thought the same thing.  What if I just got on my bike and just kept riding, south.  Then, I was in Campers’ Village the other day and I’m looking at walking shoes and I get talking to a nearby clerk who’s pricing cross-country ski poles and he says that he likes a really light shoe and he shows me a trail running shoe.  Even hiking? I ask and he says, of course.  Then he tells that what he wore when he rode his bike from Edmonton to Patagonia on the southern tip of Chile.  I was skeptical.  That’s a long way and there’s some dangerous territory to be travelled through.  So, I asked, how you’d you get past Panama? because I know that’s where the road ends and he says, there’s ferry from there to Columbia.  I said, isn’t dangerous biking through some of those countries? and he says, In Venezuela I took backroads ‘cause I was afraid of being kidnapped.  (Yes, It’s a problem there.)  He also said that he’s ridden his bike across much of Europe. 

Recommended shoes that wouldn't fit
Then he tells me that he doesn’t deal with shoes and he points me to another, female clerk.  After I decide on a shoe she and I get to talking a bit and I tell her how amazed about her partner biking all the way to Patagonia and she says, how old do you think he is? I want to play along and since I figure he must be in his early 40s, I say, 35 and with a big grin on her face, she says, 51.  You’re kidding, I say.  Nope.  He is Asian, she says as if I hadn’t noticed.  They always look a bit younger.  Yah, I think, but 51.  He probably would have known “Chez Helene” and the “Friendly Giant” and the “Junior Forest Rangers,” all television programs only those of my generation would know. 

Before reading that book, I hadn’t seriously considered cross-country bike rides or long-distance hikes, both of which were sparked by reading that book. My daughter remembered that I liked biking, a fact I often forget myself and opened my eyes to a possibility I’d never before considered.

I don’t know what my family thinks of the presents I’ve given.  Not really.  They all provide the appropriate response but I really don’t know and I care that much because gift giving is a learning process.  We learn from the giving as well as the receiving and best of all, the giving forces me out of my tiny world to put myself into that of others.  

We went a tad overboard here.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Assholes - the latest fad

Assholes, they’re everywhere but some places more than others.  That’s according to Aaron James, in his book “Assholes, A Theory.”  I can vouch for that.  Ever been in a line-up in China?  Those guys are assholes.  You’re fifteen minutes in a queue and you’re standing in front of a clerk who’s protected by a plexi-glass participation and these guys are reaching around you shoving their money at the clerk.  Elbows high, you attempt to purchase your train ticket but not before one or two are able to get the clerk to take their money. 

Last year, there’s the line-up to get into the Calgary Legion Hall to see performances by Juno Award nominees and you’ve purchased stupid wrist bands that allow access to any venue after all the people who’ve purchased venue specific tickets get in and of course there isn’t room for you once the people with tickets get in.  So, you’ve been standing in line for about an hour getting to know the people behind you who are hiking the West Coast trail one section at a time which sounds interesting but this is getting to
Legion at Junos - Kind of crowded
seem like an awfully long time and it’s like waiting for the bus in the middle of winter.  It could come any time and then a couple of scantily clad, good-looking, rather inebriated girls start talking to the young people in front of you like they’ve been saving a place in line for them and you learn that more friends are coming and you become discouraged.  Recognizing the discomfort of the young people to whom the girls are talking you realize they don’t know the them at all. You’re on the verge of making a scene (which most Canadians hate) when boyfriends arrive and take the girls away to another venue.  Aaron James claims that assholes are almost exclusively men.  I must respectfully disagree.  Although the assholes are primarily male, the fair sex offers a few of its members to that population.    

Mr. James distinguishes assholes from psychopaths who are far less common and far more dangerous.  Unlike psychopaths, he says that assholes know when they’re breaking social rules or being rude or making cruel accusations because they’re aware of the feelings of others.  They just choose to ignore them basically because it may not be in their self-interest.  Like when a bunch of assholes chant “lock her up” or tweet “you’re better off dead” or hold up signs that read “carbon tax = sodomy.”  (How the one equals the other can only make sense in the most homophobic of contexts.) 

Aaron James
Assholes don’t think they’re bad or know how women or gay men might feel about their accusations.  They know very well.  They just don’t care.  According to Mr. James’ asshole research, the asshole, 1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically. 2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and 3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of others.

"When you're a star, they let you do it"
Like when Donald Trump didn’t pay contractors for work completed on his buildings or when he threatens to deport illegal immigrants who make up many of the employees who provide essential services to his hotels.  He’s entitled to exploit their labour because, he’s “smart.”  Or the bankers responsible for the 2008 meltdown who despite their banks receiving billions in bailouts still felt entitled to millions of dollars in bonuses because they deserved it.  Again, because they were smart.  Or contractors who claimed bankruptcy and skedaddled out of town after they took money from families in Slave Lake who’d lost their homes in the fire.  What did they think?  They could have felt badly but more likely, I’m guessing, smart. 

How does one become an asshole?  It can’t be totally bred or inbred because, as Mr. James claims, some cultures are more assholish than others.  Capitalism, he says can devolve in to asshole capitalism when the cooperative people give up cooperating out of despair or the need to survive.  Social institutions that provide services like policing, healthcare, and education aren’t going to survive if people don’t pay their taxes or they only obey the law.  If the government reimburse their employees for services rendered, they’ll either quit of seek compensation in other ways.  Like the Mexican police who extort money for a bogus traffic ticket that must be paid before they’ll return your passport.   

On the spectrum of asshole capitalism in the developed world, Mr. James places Italy on top.  He particularly uses the election of billionaire and asshole, Silvio Berlusconi, to the position of prime minister where he served on and off for nine years.  Back in 1993, the people of Italy believed that his savvy in business could help revitalize the economy.  He was convicted of tax fraud in 2013. He was convicted that same year for paying for sex in abuse of power.  Italians recently voted against giving Prime Minister Matteo Renzi the power to reform their constitution and hopefully end the revolving door of governments in Italy since the Second World War.  This will likely mean that Italy will pull out of the Euro which causing its currency to be devalued and, at least in the short run, a less wealthy Italian population. 

Could the same devolution to asshole capitalism occur in the U.S. with the election of Donald Trump?  I believe Aaron James attempts to answer that question in his recently released “Assholes, A Theory of Donald Trump.”   With Canada, so influenced by U.S. politics and culture, I fear we may be drawn to follow them down the same self-destructive road particularly with the emergency of Ezra Lavant and his rebel media and hateful rants that do little more than advance the interests of other assholes like himself.  In the end, it’s not his supporters or those of Donald Trump who will benefit from their rise to power.  It won't be the displaced middle class who'll finally get its say.  It'll be like the king of the hill games we used to play on piles of snow in elementary where the kingpin assholes emerge at the top of the pile and everyone else is left at the bottom with little more than scrapes and bruises and frustration to show for their efforts.  That is, until, they’ve had enough and use their numbers to gang-up on the assholes.  It’s inevitable but the journey to get there isn’t be fun. 

King of the hill - the never-ending game