Thursday, July 24, 2014

On That List of Excuses for Not Having Sex Floating Around the Interweb

I wanted to chime in on a facebook discussion about that list (a man made a spreadsheet of his wife's excuses for refusing sex), but it wasn't started by an official FB friend, so I couldn't comment on it.  I'm not sure the etiquette on this, so I'll just keep everyone anonymous.  Here's the opener attached to a link that suggests women never owe men sex:

This analogy seems to suggest that, like a game of badminton in which nobody actually hits the ball is not actually a game of badminton, marriage in which nobody has sex isn't actually a marriage.  That's an archaic notion of marriage, and even in more religious times the union needed to be consummated only once to be validated.  Today, sex isn't necessary to prove a marriage is valid or invalid - even in religious circles.  I know more than one Catholic who's had a marriage annulled even though there were children produced.  Having sex doesn't make a marriage and not having sex doesn't unmake one.

And this is a progression to be celebrated.  There was a time when raping a woman was enough to legally make her your wife.  Now, here at least, it's illegal.  We've come to a place in which whatever people want to do sexually between consenting adults is accepted.  It's their own business.  But one choice that's less accepted is the choice to abstain while in a relationship.  It's curious how all or nothing we are about that.

The original poster continues:

Let's look closer at "a de facto exchange of fidelity for participation."

There's nothing in marriage vows suggesting sex is a necessary part of the union, but we can skip that type of argument and look at what the culture actually believes about marriage.  I think he's right that many people accept this type of agreement - at first.  But things come up.  Kids happen and people get tired or bored or sick of playing a game that they don't enjoy as much as their partner does.  Maybe they never actually "win the game," so to speak because their partner wins too fast every time.  Whatever the reason, I think in the first blush of matrimony there may be an assumption made that sex is a significant part of the marriage, and too many people unwisely don't discuss the what if's around this assumption.  But later on, it seems some people acknowledge and often accept a waning of interest.  The mutual understanding shifts over the course of time.

I'm not a marriage advocate largely because I don't think we can actively promise to love another until we die (as explained in this), but I also think it's too much to ask to promise we'll be the same kind of person and want the same kinds of things for decades into the future.  We are beings constantly in flux, yet some marriages expect consistency.  It's wonderful when people grow and change together, accommodating changes as they arise and working through them, but sometimes the changes are too great to be accommodated.  That's just life; it's nobody's fault.

Furthermore, because many people believe it to be true, that marriage is an exchange of fidelity for participation, doesn't make it right.  Just because it is that way for many people, doesn't mean it ought to be that way.  As we evolve to recognize individual rights, we have a moral duty to respect that we all have a right to do what we want with our bodies.  If a partner wants to have sex, it has to come as a  request, not an expectation.  That spreadsheet-man's wife's reasons for saying "no" to sex are seen as "excuses" implies that he believes sex is her duty, a chore, and she's trying to weasel out of her responsibility to him like a kid explaining why she can't clean the bathroom right this minute.  But it's not a duty for her to perform while she lies back and thinks of England.  Sex is an act to be freely shared between partners.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Ideally marriage is about caring for another without expectation.  It's about loving another person, which is not self-seeking and keeps no record of wrongs.  It's a public gesture that makes a commitment to care about the well being of another.  Publicly humiliating a partner by posting "excuses" online shows a profound lack of care and respect.  

I agree with the writer that the couple needs to "dispel a mutual illusion."  They clearly need to have a conversation, and spreadsheet-man has approached his personal problem in, I think, one of the worst ways possible.  No matter the initial intent of their marriage, that's changed, and they're not coping well with that reality.  It's a very real and serious problem for people when they're mismatched sexually, I agree, because they've promised not to go elsewhere.  It's not like if one person wants to see a movie, and the other declines, and the desirer can call a friend.  But that's not enough to suggest the solution is the assumption of participation.  Almost any two given people will have different desires at different times, and there are myriad ways to cope with that reality besides "Participate when I want it or we're over!".

Most importantly, a mismatch must be seen as just that.  There's no right amount of sex to have, so someone agreeing to it three times a month must be accepted as much as someone wanting it several times a day or never at all.  It just is what it is.  A mismatch is a problem for both the person not getting as much as they desire, and for the person denying the request, but it's only a problem at all if people hold sex in their relationship as more important than care, respect, and love.  If you care enough, you can become attuned to one another's needs.  It might mean not asking even if you're feeling it, and it might, for some people so inclined, mean doing things you're not really into right now.  Love isn't about giving everything of ourselves to another person, though, or solving all their problems ourselves, it's about caring about their issues enough to be there while they find their own way.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Shaving Minutes Off Your Cycling Time

Or, In Praise of Crappy Bikes

I'm in the middle of several books right now, and I'll write more about them as I finish.  But I was thinking about this title on my morning bike ride.

I'm often no more than ten minutes into a conversation with a fellow cyclist before I'm being told I'm doing something wrong, and I'm struck by how divisive the community can be.

I'm often grilled about the type of bike I own and how many.  There's a competitiveness and elitism to the ride itself.  I rode my dad's Sekini for decades until the early 90s when an old boyfriend convinced me I had to have a mountain bike - even though there are no mountains around here, and I don't ride on trails.  It was the thing at the time.  I succummed to peer pressure, but I was happily back on a road bike when that bike got stolen.  And now that old Sekini is retro.  But it seems it's not enough to have one bike.  You're not a real cyclist if you don't have multiple bikes - and at least one of them should be custom-made to fit your body.

Sometimes it's all just a show of normative cycling behaviour - fitting in with the form without the substance.  I know a guy with four bikes and all the bells and whistles.  I suggested we bike to Guelph for lunch one day (about 30 km).  He countered, "You can't bike all the way to Guelph!"

Chatting with two women on bikes once, they warned me, "You can't get 100% efficiency without clip-in pedals."  When I asked how they do groceries in bike shoes, the response was met with an eye roll and aside, "She wants to do groceries with her bike."  They probably didn't mean to sound condescending, but wanting a multi-purpose ride definitely put me in a different class in their eyes.

I don't wear the lycra shirts no matter how aero-dynamic they might be.  I ride in regular clothes - even dresses. If I'm going over 40 kms, I might wear bike shorts.  Even in the heat of the day, I haven't found sweat-soaked clothes to be an issue.  I mean that it doesn't happen, not that I just don't mind it.  When I get to my destination, it just takes a few minutes to wipe the sweat from my face, and I'm good as new.  Maybe my endocrine system works differently, though.  To clarify, I don't have any issues with people who do wear the gear, I'd just like people to think a bit before putting people in a different category because they don't.  

Then yesterday I was told that the way I bike and everything I've been doing for the last 45 years is entirely wrong.  "You can't get a real workout unless you're on a single-speed bike, and you should be standing on the pedals to go up hills."  Apparently, though, most people are riding incorrectly and need to be taught a thing or two because gears make you weak.  At least I fit in with the ignorant masses.

This all speaks to a culture obsessed with more and better.  That's a concern in itself.  It's about showing off your stuff instead of enjoying the day.  And it's a problem when we suggest others aren't up to par because they're not using the currently highest-rated stuff or practices.  But it's a bigger problem with cycling because we'd all be better off if more people were encouraged to ride.

I feel a bit vindicated watching this video in which a Dutch cyclist questions the bikes and outfits of Americans and their relegation of cycling to an activity for children, a hobby, or a competitive sport, but rarely a regular means of transportation.

Infrastructure issues aside (which is a bigger discussion), I think we'd woo more cyclists if it weren't so competitive - if there weren't so many arbitrary right and wrong ways to ride.  An elitist culture is exclusionary, and we need more people to get riding.  I think some people might be reluctant to ride because they can't afford that custom-made high-performance bike or don't feel comfortable in spandex or don't want to do the work it takes to build speed enough to fit in with some riding groups.  But they don't have to do any of that to get the benefits of cycling. When the bar's raised too high, it's hard for the novice to jump in.  So they stay in the comfort of their cars. It feels like you have to be an athlete to try it instead of just a mom getting groceries.

I think we need more of us in regular clothes on cheap bikes to be celebrated by cyclists, not subtly disparaged. We're impressive for how far we get with just a single crappy bike and anti-aerodynamic gear, dammit!

And it seems to me a strange juxtaposition to have hobby-cyclists so concerned with speed and efficiency.  For me, cycling fits with the slow movement.  I know I can get to a neighbouring city faster by car, but cycling has benefits that outweigh speed.  It's precisely because I think we need to divorce ourselves from our obsession with speed that I ride a bike everywhere.  The people I've talked to - and been "helped" by - about cycling don't ever hope to race professionally.  They're not prepping for Tour de France time trials.  So why is it so important to shave minutes off their time?   Or, more to the point, why are they so concerned that I shave minutes off my time?  And to what extent have people gotten sucked into just another marketing ploy to get us to buy more stuff?

I'm not saying the gear doesn't make you go faster, but that it feels like the focus on going faster or getting the best workout possible with the best stuff possible is overshadowing all the other benefits of cycling.

Environmentally it prevents creating the GHGs produced while the car's running as well as in the production of the car.

Financially, a refurbished bike is a lot cheaper than a car - or even a bus pass.

Aesthetically it beats the Met.  Even when I ride the same routes, it's always a shifting scene.  The greens are different and the clouds are often up for a good show with sunshine filtering through the trees like a strobe light.  Some loops are full of horses frolicking, and, near sunrise, rabbits are everywhere - and they're merry.  It's nice to look at.

Physically it's good for your heart with less stress on the joints than running.  Half an hour of a raised heart-rate a few times a week is necessary for optimal health.  Whether or not you get a peak muscle workout is a side issue.

Psychologically it offers me time to go into a plane of thought that I don't get to during the rest of my multi-tasking day.  It's meditative.  I've started riding with pen and paper to record the insights and ideas I get only when riding - like this entire post.

And it's fun!  I always feel like I'm 10-years-old on my bike.  Little else beats the rush of a good downhill after slogging it up a steep incline.  Especially in a dress.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Just Not Ready to Laugh at Climate Change

We had a great end-of-year send off by a few teachers who took the time and effort to make the final day entertaining.   Years ago, we had a team that would roast all the teachers.  Some audience members were visibly upset and offended by the comments, so it went away, but most of us were just offended if we were neglected to be mentioned in the jokes.  This year is the closest we've come to that level of comedy.

It's through self-recognition and humility that we develop as a community.  It's healthy to laugh at our idiosyncrasies a bit.  And we all love laughing at each other, right?

This year, they took me down a notch for worrying about climate change with a bit about our parking lots being covered in water within two years.

And maybe it's because I'm really crazy that I didn't laugh but instead thought, "Not here, we won't be covered in water.  Give it 60 years, and we'll be positively scorched!"

My lack of a sense of humour on this reminded me of watching Harold and Kumar with an old boyfriend.  We watched the first one and both laughed uproariously.  I love the randomness of the humour.   But then we started watching the second one about Guantanamo Bay. My boyfriend was laughing, but I couldn't see the humour in it.  I've read all about the sexual abuse issues going on there, and the "jokes" about guards forcing inmates to blow them for lunch just couldn't elicit a laugh from me.  It's too close, too real, to possibly be funny.  It was my boyfriend's innocent ignorance that allowed him to keep laughing.  I had to leave.

So it goes with climate change.  For any of us that read the IPCC report in detail, or kept abreast of the news, it's far too close and too real to be funny anymore.  It's downright frightening.  And it's so sad that we'll lose the awe-inspiring beauty of nature, not to mention our many friends and relations.    

And I remember the episode of SNL when they asked the Mayor of NY if it was okay to make fun of 9/11 yet.  He gave his blessing.  We need time after a tragedy to grieve before we can laugh.  But this issue is a tragedy that won't end.  There won't be a time we can start healing from it.

Had they video-taped me dancing and trying to drunkenly harmonize to Wagon Wheel the previous night, repeatedly (and my loud irritation that the band didn't know "Winona's Big Brown Beaver"), I might have been in tears and short of breath laughing so hard.  I'm far from humourless.  Their choice of target fell painfully short of the mark.

Unfortunately, that people found it funny left me feeling all the more isolated in the building.  Too many people just don't get the profound seriousness of this topic.  It's up there with rape jokes now.  I'm not a prude for not finding them funny.  I'm too aware of the harshness of this life to override the ache in my belly at the thought of it.  It's real.  And it's happening right now.

Or maybe I'm just crazy.  We can only hope.

More Wagon Wheel!!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What's a Mother to Do?

It's always harder to have something taken away than to never have it in the first place.  But still...

A local high school is removing a few dozen students from the school bus route because the board realized the kids are within official walking distance to the school - 3.2 km.  Families are upset because they can't afford the bus fare, their teenagers can't be expected to walk that far, and, during a couple weeks of December and January, the sun will be just about to rise when they embark on their morning trek.  One parent commented in The Record, "I will not make them walk. It is way too far."

Google maps estimates it takes the average person 35 minutes to walk 3K.  I can do it in less, and I'm really old, so I'm tipping that average to the one end.  Yet the parents of these healthy young men and women don't expect their kids to be able to make it in less than 45 minutes.

"It's a hell of a walk."

Some are concerned with safety in the dark since the walk passes an industrial park, but I'm not convinced sunrise is prime time for muggings.  And it's not really "after dark" when they'll be walking - implying late evening, but actually before dawn.  And only just - by minutes.  And I'm also not convinced industrial areas are in some way more dangerous than city streets.

Here's my old geezer story:  Back in the day, when I was in middle school (11-13 years old), we had to walk over 3K to school in the rain and snow and sleet, and NOBODY CARED!!  None of our parents rallied to have us bussed!  None of them felt remotely bad for our plight!  We trudged through adverse conditions for three whole kilometres in torrential downpours or baking sun, and not one of the parents in the area ever offered us a ride.  I clearly remember a blizzard one year: snow was almost waist high and yet our troubles did nary make dinner table headlines.  And I'm really short, so it was even higher on me!

"It'll build character," my dad told me.  "Walking is good for what ails ya," my ma agreed.  Seriously, they talked like that.  "Quit yer bellyachin' already. Count your lucky stars you don't have to walk twice as far just for a glass of water like some people do!"  We couldn't get air conditioning either.  "It'll prevent your body from acclimatizing to the heat."  Ya whatever, dad.  

So, maybe I'm just jealous that their complaints made front-page news, but I dare say we're raising a fussy lot.  In my day, in good stoic fashion, we were ever reminded of those less fortunate than ourselves.  And we learned to cope.  We learned to find the strength within to trudge through the depths, and we were all on time for school.  And some of us even learned to enjoy the daily ritual of losing ourselves in the rhythm of each step.

We've had it good for too long now.  We need headlines and posters and constant reminders of what real adversity looks like.  Because if we think this is bad, we might be in for a real shocker a few decades from now.    

Monday, June 2, 2014

Backyard Studio and Garden Build

Three summers ago, I decided to take over the backyard, get rid of the playhouse that the kids had deserted, and build a big garden and waterfall with a little studio to work in.  The next day, my son said all he wanted for his birthday was to take over the backyard to build an outdoor workout area with a wall, trapeze, a pole to climb, and boxes to flip off of.

The novelty wore off after two years, and now it's my turn.  The studio needs some interior work, and the waterfall is barely started, but the rest is coming along nicely.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Brief Hiatus

I've been busy gardening, and then I took a break to check out NYC.  The entire album, Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, played in my head on a loop while I was there.  It was a nice distraction from the provincial election stuff, and the NDP couldn't ask me for time or money for four whole days!  I'll be voting NDP today in the advanced polls because they're the likely party to keep out the Cons in my riding, but my typical steadfast support is wavering and the badgering isn't helping.  Because I run the Student Vote at school, I made a comparison chart for students, and, of course, some students complained of bias.  I just took top bullet points for each category off each official website.  That's not bias; it's real - and really scary.  Anyway...

It was interesting to me to check all the stereotypes about NYC I had developed from movies and late night shows perpetuated particularly by Letterman and Jon Stewart.
- New Yorkers don't walk fast - at all  It was a weekend, but still.  Monday was no different.
- It's as clean as Toronto.  The level of smoking and garbage is about the same.
- It felt as safe as home - maybe more so as there were families walking around even out past dark.
- Besides the hotel, prices were similar to Toronto.  Some galleries were by donation even.
- And most surprising, based on TV perceptions, was that everybody was very polite and friendly.  Bumping into someone elicited "sorry" from both parties.  Just like Canada.  And here I thought that was our thing.

Some of the stereotypes played out.  The place is bustley and noisy and crowded.  We really slept to cars honking all night.  And our hotel window faced a brick wall a few feet away.  Classic.  We walked everywhere, and I wondered about all the cars on the road barely moving faster than our pace.  It's about 20 km end to end; bikeable in an hour if you can get through traffic (and bikes get their own traffic lights!).  With subways and busses and cabs everywhere, it's curious how many people have cars - although we never did figure out how to get a cab.  Seriously.  And the food was fantastic. Every restaurant had flavourful food that tastes differently than the other restaurants.  That's not always the case in Waterloo where I swear most restaurants just heat up food from a central kitchen.

And the architecture was spectacular.  It evoked that bit from Hannah and Her Sisters where they tour the city pointing out the finer pieces that few notice with their heads down.

We went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Neil Patrick Harris, and he didn't disappoint - except, that is, that we missed sitting in the audience with Hugh Jackman by two days!!  

The show was more physical than I expected, with NPH on stage almost the entire time - doing all costume changes while he sang.  And I regretted not spending the extra cash and phone time getting front row seats for the chance to participate (i.e. have his crotch in my face).  After the show, people crowded at the exit for a chance to get an autograph and picture.  I hung in there for about half an hour until someone in the crowd started smoking, and I bailed.

But what makes me want to go back for more - besides that Colbert Report tickets were ungettable this time round and that my daughter and I couldn't go to the Comedy Cellar to maybe stalk spot Louis CK because she's underage at 20 - is the Met.  It's too big for one day.  The Central Park Zoo was negligible  next to the Toronto Zoo, and the Museum of Natural History was more or less on par with the ROM, but the Met outshone the AGO by a mile.   This photo is me in a gardeny installation on the rooftop.  Very cool.

It was legen...wait for it...dary!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

It's Possible...

That's something, then, isn't it.

The IPCC released the final third of their missive today.  We can get out alive, and with reasonable economic stability, but only if we dismantle fossil fuel energy and replace it with renewable energy sources.  "The era of fossil fuel energy is ending."  Desmond Tutu adds, we need to campaign against all fossil fuels causing the "injustice" of climate change.

It means that some very very powerful people will be out billions of dollars.  What will it take for that to happen?  Are we ready for it?  Can we apply consistent pressure long enough to see it through?

Well see....

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On The Sixth Extinction

Look inside!
We're in the midst of a mass extinction, but Elizabeth Kolbert is actually somewhat hopeful about it all.  We are at a truly extraordinary moment of history in which we are cognizant of our own demise (except for those in denial) and, therefore, able to affect how it turns out if we can just get our act together!

This book has been on the NY Best Sellers list for four weeks for good reason.  It's full of scientific data, but it's written conversationally.  We get to know all the people involved in the research.  They're all pivotal to this engaging story.

Here are the facts in a nutshell:

There have been five mass extinctions so far.  An extinction is exponentially different from a "fall."  It's not just a civilization that's being destroyed leaving ashes for another to rise up in.  An extinction of a species means every single one is gone.  And a mass extinction means many species are lost in a relatively short period of time - when we lose more species than we gain (extinction > speciation).  Mass extinctions are "substantial biodiversity losses that occur rapidly and are global in extent" (16).
"Species are at a low risk of extinction most of the time.  But this condition of relative safety is punctuated at rare intervals by a vastly higher risk.  The history of life thus consists of long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic" (16).
There is no one cause of mass extinctions:  "As in Tolstoy, every extinction event appears to be unhappy - and fatally so - in its own way" (104).  Here are the big five (but she doesn't give much space to numbers 2 and 4):

1st:  Ending the Ordovician period - 444 million years ago.  Life was mainly in water, then 85% of marine species died off due to glaciation.  Carbon dioxide levels dropped possibly due to the development of plant matter (early mosses) which absorbed the CO2 and then the ocean became more oxygenated.  That chemical change in the ocean's gasses coupled with the colder weather made the place inhospitable (103).

2nd: During the Late Devonian period - 370 million years ago.  After this, reptiles started to gain ground.

3rd:  Ending the Permian period - 252 million years ago.  This was the most devastating - called "the great dying."  It was caused by an increase in carbon which acidified the oceans and, with the oxygen level dropping, most organisms probably suffocated.  Reefs collapsed.  It lasted maybe 100,000 years from start to finish, and eliminated 90% of all species on earth (104).  The best explanation for this increased carbon is a massive burst of vulcanism in Siberia.  "But this spectacular event probably released, on an annual basis, less carbon than our cars and factories and power plants" (123).  This one is most similar to what we're currently experiencing, but these days we like to do things much faster.

4th:  At the end of the Triassic period - 200 million years ago.  This ushered in the Jurassic period and the origin of birds and flowering plants.

5th:  At the end of the Cretaceous period - 66 million years ago.  This most recent one, the "K-T" extinction, wiped out the dinosaurs when an astroid hit the earth and incinerated everything nearby, then the dust created by the impact broiled anything left (86).  This was followed by the dawn of the first Primates (our ancestors).

There was also an extinction of megafauna about 11,700 years ago (woolly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers and the other creature from Ice Age), but that doesn't rate as a mass extinction.

We're always dealing with extinctions of individual species.  During ordinary times, the millions of years between mass extinctions, we have "background extinctions."  It happens throughout history as species evolve and fight for resources.  For the strongest species to survive, others have to go.  As far as typical background extinction goes, we expect to lose about one species of mammals every 700 years and one amphibian species every 1000 years or so, worldwide (17).

Today, though, the amphibian extinction rate is about 45,000 times higher than the background rate.  A third of all reef-building corals, fresh-water mollusks, sharks and rays, and a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are close to extinction (18).

Something that I can't help notice is that one of humanity's strongest survival traits, adaptation, is one that is leading us towards destruction.  The extinction rate has been creeping up, and now we just accept that we're losing many species of life every day as if it's normal.  We're adjusted to this news to the extent that it doesn't shock us the way it should - the way it needs to!  A little too adaptable for our own good, I'd say!  
White-nose syndrome.

The losses are happening worldwide, and one culprit is human travel.  We unwittingly carry disease with us wherever we go that can destroy life in other parts of the world (like a fungus that doesn't bother one species of bat, but completed obliterated another - the North American brown bat which used to be out there eating mosquitoes by the thousands).

But, people have a hard time processing disruptive information.  This is a "paradigm shift discovery."  It's hard to accept that catastrophes like this happen - and to us - and because of us.  

We live in the newly-named Anthropocene Era - a "human-dominated geological epoch" in which we have transformed almost half the land surface of the planet, damned or diverted most of the world's major rivers, added more nitrogen to the soil than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems, removed more than a third of the fish, and used more than half the world's readily accessible fresh water runoff.
"Most significantly, people have altered the composition of the atmosphere.  Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by 40% over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent green-house gas, has more than doubled" (108).  About a third of the CO2 that humans pump into the air is absorbed by the oceans.  "This year alone the oceans will absorb two and a half billion tons of carbon...Every day, every American in effect pumps seven pounds of carbon into the sea" (114). 
We're altering the chemistry of the air and water, and that type of rapid change is what kick-starts mass extinctions.  Most species manage within a small window of acceptable conditions, and we're taking them outside this acceptable range.
"By burning through coal and oil deposits, humans are putting carbon back into the air that has been sequestered for tens - in most cases hundreds - of millions of years.  In the process, we are running geologic history not only in reverse but at warp speed" (124).  
The prediction of one scientist interviewed:  "Under business as usual, by mid-century [35 years] things are looking rather grim" (132):
"It's quite possible that by the end of this century, CO2 levels could reach a level not seen since...some 50 million years ago. Whether species still possess the features that allowed their ancestors to thrive in that ancient, warmer world is, at this point, impossible to say" (172).   
All the coral reefs will dissolve, and they affect everything else in that delicate eco-system.  It's a chain-reaction that will affect us.  "Warming today is taking place at least ten time faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that preceded it..  To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly" (162).  In one area of Peru, researchers have noticed the trees actually shifting location and dubbed it the "Birnam Wood scenario" (158).

Which species will go?  According to Jared Diamond, "the main predictor of local extinction was 'small population size'" (181).  Species that totally died off in the past were ones that had only one or two offspring at a time and with a long gestational period.  Kinda like us. "Which is why, with the exception of humans, all the great apes today are facing oblivion...By the time we're done, it's quite possible that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left, except, that is, for us." (254). Wishful thinking.  And the species that survive and flourish after we're through are the ones with a speedy reproductive rate.  They're not talking cockroaches, but rats - giant rats (104).

Another interim problem is that the "world is changing in ways that compel species to move," but it's also "changing in ways that create barriers - roads, clear-cuts, cities - that prevent them from doing so....human activity has created an obstacle course for the dispersal of biodiversity" (189).

We're creating a "new Pangea" that has more diversity in areas formerly bereft, but overall global diversity has dropped significantly (212).  What we're not destroying by altering the habitat - including the air and water - we are hunting to extinction.  "Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it's not clear that he ever really did" (235).

The first eleven chapters of the book all explain and compare what's happening now to causes and effects of prior extinctions, but the ending is far more interesting.  The last two chapters look at our psychology and potential for improvement.

We are the only primate that is driven to explore and take over new places, to venture "out on the ocean where you don't see land" (251).  Now that we've charted all of this planet, we have aims for another.  No other animal does that (but viruses do), and Kolbert refers to it as a madness or a "Faustian restlessness."

Faust signing his soul away.

But something else we do that no other primate does is collective problem-solving.  Apes are great at solving puzzles, often faster than a 5-year-old.  But they're no match for a group of 5-year-olds working together.  "When the children were given a hint about where to find a reward...they took it.  The apes either didn't understand that they were being offered help or couldn't follow the cue" (249).  And with "the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it" (258).  So things could really go either way at this point.

The final chapter chronicles the many projects people are currently undertaking to save species:  keeping cells alive in a Frozen Zoo, banning DDT, passing the Endangered Species Act, saving condors by helping with lead poisoning, banning poaching, and performing "ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows" (265).

But, like so many books about the future of our species, the final rallying cry is, "People have to have hope" (263).  Saying we need it isn't the same as giving it to us.  It's suggesting, maybe, that we should live a bit in denial of the tragedy we've caused.  Eleven chapters of bleak data followed by two chapters of hope might actually suffice for those who haven't managed the paradigm shift towards understanding our potential for catastrophe.  And I'm not convinced Kolbert doesn't have huge doubts of her own.  But I concur that it really doesn't get us anywhere to just give up and resign ourselves to the end of our kind.  If there's a possibility that we have the ability to slow this thing down, then we'll be remiss if we don't continue to try in every way imaginable.
"Life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so.  There have been very long uneventful stretches and very, very occasionally revolutions on the surface of the earth."  The causes of these events are varied incluing "one weedy species" (that's us!).  "The one feature these disparate events have in common is...rate of change.  When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out....What matters is that people change the world.....through: Our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.....Having freed ourselves from the contraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth's biological and geochemical systems.  By disrupting these systems - cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, aciifying the oceans - we're putting our own survival in danger....In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.....Another that human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion."  

We'll see how it all play out then, shall we?

EQAO, Literacy and Ability

My 9-year-old says that EQAO stands for Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.  I think she's on to something.

We just administered the literacy test at our school this week.  I've always understood administering this standardized test as a means to ensure that nobody graduates high-school without demonstrating an ability to read and write at a specific level so that nobody ends up at a job unable to read the safety signs or the equipment manuals all by themselves.  And how embarrassing would it be to pass someone through the system who can't actually read?!

But many students with exceptionalities are allowed to have a scribe to read the test to them and record their answers verbatim in twice the time given other kids.  I'm baffled how a test measures literacy, the ability to read and write, if the taker is neither reading nor writing it.  This group of students are really just having one portion of their reading comprehension skills tested, not their level of literacy.  And the kids who clearly struggle with reading and writing, but who haven't been tested for an "exceptionality" are kinda getting ripped-off.  They have to do it all themselves within the time limit.  It's a conundrum how to offer a standardized test on any semblance of an even playing field.  I don't think it's possible.

Furthermore, one skill of the highly literate is being able to use a dictionary when encountering a foreign word.  But dictionaries aren't allowed during the lit test, and the vocabulary of this one was quite advanced.  Last year, many students were unable to write the essay portion because they got stuck on the word "compulsory" with respect to a question on mandatory courses in schools.  If they don't understand one word, looking it up isn't allowed; they have to guess or fail or both.  That doesn't measure their literacy but their I.Q. (or their luck).

The test costs a small fortune - over $30 million yearly.  That's only 2% of the cost of running full-day kindergarten, but still.  That's money that could be better spent on increasing special ed services in the primary grades to really attack literacy issues before they become permanent problems.

The great success of the test, that the scores have improved, is only because schools are teaching to the test - often taking time from novel studies, plays, poetry, formal essay writing, and grammar lessons to have students write myriad news articles and opinion essays. Part of the mandate of the EQAO is to "...contribute to the enhancement of the quality of education in Ontario," but education is compromised by the EQAO by creating a near obsessive concern with students focusing on the very few skills tested at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum.

But the worst problem, beyond the fact that they don't test literacy and that it's costly and time-consuming, is that it destroys the kids.  They get stressed out for a week beforehand, and they are terrified of failing because it means they're dumb.  The ones that fail have to write and fail again before they're given the option of taking a literacy course in order to get their OSSD.  It doesn't prevent students from graduating without being able to read and write, and it does clarify for them that their struggles with reading writing will define them.  

An essay in a 2007 CJEAP reported that,
"...low achieving students are 25% more likely to drop out of school in states that employ graduation tests versus non-tested states. Recent announcements by the Ontario government suggest that the province may be experiencing a similar trend. For example, the high school completion rate was steady in the mid 1990’s to 2001 at 78 per cent, but dropped sharply in 2001 to 71 per cent, and has remained relatively unchanged. The 2001 date is significant since the OSSLT was introduced as a graduation requirement during the 2000/2001 school year."
Why would anyone stay in an institution that makes it clear they're below par?  The reality is that, by high-school, some students might never be able to write a good new article or opinion essay.  They're employable and enjoyable, but they get screwed by this one disability in persuasive writing and journalism - skills they're unlikely to need in any job ever.

It's not being special or exceptional or differently-abled.  The inability to learn how to effectively read and write is a dis-ability.  Some kids who aren't literate are excellent with hands-on work, but many others have no saving talents.  They'll get jobs based on their ability to be polite and likeable and work well with others.  But they won't get a job without a high-school diploma.   There are many jobs that require minimal reading and no writing. Maybe being literate as measured by this test is too much to ask for this generation in which many graduate with a teacher scribing every test and assignment anyway.

I get on my students' case when I think they're being lazy, when they just don't feel like doing work.  I hound them daily to turn off the music during class and - new this year - during a film.  This is the first year I have people singing to their music while we're watching an entertaining but curriculum-driven movie in class.  They require endless stimulation to ward off boredom.  Parents are concerned, but not enough to take their devices away, and I'm not allowed to touch them.  And I can't send the whole class to the office.  This is a new set of problems being created that is so far beyond their inability to read and write.  They might get a job even without standard literacy skills, but they can't work with earbuds in during the day's instruction.  Erin Anderssen wrote a piece yesterday about digital overload and the quest for attention from corporations, suggesting, "the prize is our eyeballs." Absolutely.  Unfortunately, I don't have a whole team working on my marketing strategies.  

But, while I challenge them to work just above their perceived ability in order to stretch their skills, I accept that they have some intellectual limitations.  There's no pedagogical basis for giving them a test that's so far beyond the abilities of the students I teach, so I have a hard time believing that the testing is somehow for their benefit.

We need the political will to end this loss of time, money, and self-esteem.  And we need to address the very real challenges of this very different population.  Next time we define educational priorities, I believe extrapolating literacy rates from a test that doesn't prove literacy at all should be the first thing to go.   

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What We Know: We're Screwed

Addressing the issues of climate change is an issue for policymakers and leaders.  It's important they're informed by the most accurate data.
-  Katharine Hayhoe, Atmospheric Scientist, Professor, and director of the Climate Science Center

A group of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has put together a "What We Know" initiative to communicate the "three 'R's" of climate change:
* Reality - 97% of climate experts have concluded human-caused climate change is happening
* Risk - There will be impacts we can expect and some abrupt changes with massively disruptive impacts.
* Response - There are still measures we can take, and the sooner we act, the better.  
The full, 20-paged document full of facts gathered from around the planet is available to read, and/or watch the video below for a 5 minute question and answer session with a climate scientist.  There are more climate scientist videos here.

Katharine Hayhoe interview from What We Know on Vimeo.

They know that climate change is increasing extreme weather events, and we might be in store for a record-breaking heat wave this summer due to a "super" El Niño.  

It's not just extreme weather events that we have to worry about, of course.  Climate change is causing animals to migrate and spread diseases. Sea ice is melting releasing methane and no longer reflecting as much sunlight.  Oceans are heating up and rising.  Fracking is raising methane levels, and we will almost certainly kill off large numbers of species.

What I worry about at this point is, if we don't do anything to change the situation because, for some reason - likely our profound inability to measure long-term gains against short-term losses - we lack the will to save our grandchildren and great grandchildren, then things will get ugly.  It's hard to maintain a rational, level head when we start to run out of food, water, and oxygen.   (h/t Z Magazine)

Clara Hughes' Mental Health Tour

Our school had the honour of hosting a visit from Clara Hughes yesterday - six time Olympic winner for cycling and speed skating.  She's biking around Canada - ALL around Canada - talking about mental health.  She biked through a snow storm in Woodstock on her way to K-W.  Very hard core!

She had a rough childhood but then turned her energy from delinquency to sports in her late teens.  She didn't start speed skating until 27, and the kids were surprised to find out she's 41 - practically ancient!    Her dad was an alcoholic and had bi-polar, and her sister also has bi-polar, so she had a tough time telling her mom when she found herself in a pit of depression.  Her mantra is "stop the stigma," and she did a great job by sharing her story so frankly.  She was such a warm, open, and authentic speaker (with a great Canadian accent!) that she'd be an inspiration even without the medals.  

She spoke of the importance of access to sports and art for kids to use as an outlet for expression and emotional energy.  They're not extras in society but essentials.

The emcee made it very clear in the presentation that Bell is paying all the costs of her tour and that every penny donated goes straight to mental health initiatives - an important note for the more cynical among us!  Mental health phone lines and care and support is costly, and there's not enough money coming from the government to give access to all Canadians.  Bell has already donated $62 million to mental health institutions since 2010.  The more people that use the #BellLetsTalk hashtag, the more they'll donate in lieu of spending money on advertising.

ETA:  I also liked that Clara encouraged people to petition the government for real change.  Her 12,000 km ride ends on July 1st in Ottawa at Parliament Hill.  Getting donations from corporations is only a part of the solution.

I was a lucky recipient of a hug from Clara as she thanked a group of us who collaborated on a mural to honour her journey.  I was just one of many painters, but the real kudos go to the teacher who made it all happen and did the final details, Caz Bentley, and the designer, a student, Jacqueline Snyder, who spoke in a CTV video filmed at a talk Clara did the night before coming to KCI.

Here's the symbolism behind it all:  The number of bikes represents the number of medals she won.  The colours (black, blue, green, red, and gold) are the colours of the olympic rings.  But more importantly the bikes move from the black to the gold symbolic of the hilly process of emerging into the light with a mental illness.  Isn't that lovely!  (Apologies for the blurriness; t's the only photo I could find.)

And Clara got a kiss from KCI's goats before leaving:

h/t Matt Morris
Follow her ride on twitter, and don't forget to add #BellLetsTalk whenever you tweet!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What Do Teachers Want?

I seem to have missed hitting "publish" on this one from a few days ago:

I've gleaned, from Steve Paikin's twitter feed, a version of teachers that don't fit the media stereotype of money-grubbing lazy bums.  The quotes are from his tweets, so here they're thrice removed.

Kathleen Wynne just spoke to OSSTF teachers at AMPA.  I wish I had gone, but I have too much schoolwork to do!  I broke the custodial barriers (waxed floors) to get to my desk yesterday and today because I've got two new preps and a total ministry-dictated re-haul of a course I've taught for years.  I've been scrambling towards the break to get on top of it all.  But back to Wynne and the teachers' questions:

In her speech she said her goal is,
"to continue to make the legislature work. But I'm going to challenge their ideas. Hudak's agenda is more radical than expected....They want a war with education and we can't let that happen again....The NDP focused on populism at the expense of long term planning and lack of economic growth."
So, basically nothing but a little political slamming.  The Liberals are best, but we're not going to tell you what our plan of action is.  Then to the four questions:

1.  The first question was about grassy narrows and clear cutting the forest.  Paikin didn't tweet Wynne's response.

2.  "In 2012 you voted to take away our bargaining rights and let the Ministry of Education impose a contract. What can you do to persuade people here that you believe in restoring collective bargaining rights?"  Wynne replied, "We've all admitted, even my predecessor, that things didn't go the way we wanted last time. Help me restore our relationship.

3. The third question was about "line 9" and reversing the gas flow from east to west.  The questioner wants a full environmental assessment.  Wynne promised to "keep an eye on environmental issues but is not committing to full EA."

4. "Things are worse in education funding under the Liberals than under Mike Harris. When will we see more sustainable funding?"  Wynne replied, "We are facing challenges....We're not out of the woods in our fiscal situation. We're not going to cut & slash."

Here's the biggest change to our funding formula as felt from the inside (I mean, as a teacher):  If a student misses 15 consecutive days, s/he's dropped from the roll and we lose funding.  Enough students skip enough classes, even just MSIPs, and we lose a teacher.  But if the student is under 18, then we have to take them back, even if the teachers have been transferred or let go.  The irony is, the kids that are not in class cause far more work than the ones that attend regularly.  We don't just mark them absent and teach a smaller group; we are required to intervene, to call home every three days to listen to parents and guardians who sometimes yell and sometimes cry, to discuss the student with admin, guidance, and resource teachers, and to create packages of materials that can be completed outside the classroom - anything to help them learn the material and get the credit.  We're still teaching the kids who aren't in the room.  

Changing the funding formula, isn't about getting a raise or even maintaining our salaries.  It's about keeping much needed teachers employed and in the building.

But, I have to say, the fact that half the questions asked were of an environmental nature, clarifies the kind of concerns teachers have.  It's not about their profession getting dinged, it's about us - all of us.  I've said before that this recent contract issue wasn't about salaries, but about an infringement of the democratic process.  I don't want to live in a country in which a leader can dictate the rules without discussion, but that's the direction we're headed.  OSSTF is working to put a stop to that.

Backing for My Views on Education

There's an article in The Spectator, and a new book out (at your left there), that says everything I've been saying about education for a couple years now.  It's actually to the point that, if I weren't such a D-list blogger, I might actually think she plagiarized from my blog posts!

The article points to two main issues:

* The new system isn't new, it's at least as old as Rousseau, and it's been tried before, over and over, and it always fails for the majority of students. (I said that here and a bit more here.)

* We keep doing it because it tells us what we want to hear - that we have untapped creativity and brilliance if only our school system didn't destroy our creativity.  (My version of the argument is here - near the end, and a bit here, .)

I'll have to read the book now to see if I can better back-up my claims that are still a minority view (unless it's a fearful majority). 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What Do Women Want?

It can be a goofy question because it sets up an expectation that half the world, 3.5 billion people, can answer it the same way if it's asked in exasperation because a woman was maybe annoyed at a man for insisting on paying for dinner, or didn't want to go on a second date after all he did for her, or didn't want him moving in.  Something like that.  In that context, it suggests women should get it together and be more consistent in their collective behaviour so hetero men can understand the "rules" instead of having to make an effort to get to know each woman one at a time.  Curious.

But, in another context, it can be answered for everyone at once, including men:  Health and access to whatever will promote that, enough money to live with dignity - particularly when the kids are young, freedom from physical violence or the threat of violence, you know, generally to be treated with respect.  We know the deal.  People like to be treated as if they are valuable in their own right, as people with opinions and ideas to be discussed and debated civilly, not as commodities to be used as needed, to win over, to manipulate, to own.  Nothing earth-shattering.

My mom always told me to have one foot out the door whenever I'm talking to a mortgage broker, and, she added, whenever I'm on a date.  Always let them know you don't have to be there, and they will have to behave in a way that will make you choose to stay.  We need days like today because there are too many women who don't understand when they have a choice, and far too many more who really don't have one.  It's a frightening world out there.

Or little boys, either.  (h/t Globe Aware)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

On Downloading

I'm a movie-junkie, and I'll happily pay to watch.  That's why I'm love Netflix.  But sometimes there are movies people want to see that aren't on Netflix.  They're out there, but not in a format that can offer remuneration.

So people download.

It seems like such a reasonable thing to do.  I understand that people should be compensated for their work.  Absolutely!  If that's possible to do conveniently, I bet most people would do it - or accept a reasonable fine tied to their viewing pleasure.  Thankfully, in Canada there's a $5,000 cap on damages awarded for copyright infringement.  That's lucky for many right now because a Federal Court has decided that Teksavvy has to hand over all the IP addresses of people who download movies.  Specifically, it's just a list of people who downloaded from Voltage Pictures, so some people might luck out if they haven't wanted to see any of their films.  

The fact that it's so much easier to download than to find a site to pay for the films is the heart of the problem.  Technology changes the way people work and play, and some industries haven't entirely figured out to how to continue to flourish within the new playing field.  When I watch The Daily Show on-line, I'm forced to suffer through commercials - strangely, often the same commercial over and over.  That's one way to get around the reality that many, many people are viewing on-line instead of using cable TV access to shows.

The film industry has to use services like Netflix to present their work in a way they can be compensated.  Instead of wasting time and money chasing after people viewing illegally, they should invest their efforts in making their films faster and easier for the general public to access.

And I promise people will still go to the theatre.  At least once a month, I go to a movie for the big screen, for the slimy popcorn, for the gasps and laughter in unison, and sometimes, just sometimes, for the air conditioning.  That won't go away because everything's available on-line.  They'll still get the bucks from the opening weekend - and then some.

After all, we will continue to need something to distract us from the real world.  That's not going to change any time soon!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Learning with the Olympics

We've been warned not to say anything publicly that could make our board or school or identifiable colleagues look bad in any way.  I don't think I'm doing that here.  I'm merely expressing a different opinion, and I expect I'll be in the minority of public opinion.  I'll really just be making myself look petty, yet I continue undeterred.  People can judge the board's tweets on their own merit without the help of my ranting.

The Olympics only happen once every four years (sort of).  And it's only for a limited time.  And it's all about celebrating our country's achievements.  But I need some clarification around what to do in class during this pivotal period of time in our history.  All week, I've been negotiating with kids watching on their phones while I tried to teach.  One student astutely pointed out, "They have it on all the TV screens in the school, so they obviously want us to watch it."

And the school board concurs:

This was sent out yesterday morning, and similar tweets previous to that, and it gives tacit permission for students to go ahead and enjoy the games even if it's not what your teacher had in mind.   They don't say that explicitly, but I'm willing to bet it's the message many students are getting.  The board twitter rep recanted briefly only when a student questioned if he could miss a test to watch the games, but their silence was permission when others tweeted about skipping school.  The Games are related to school (in some unmentioned way), so therefore it's acceptable to watch them during class time. 

I can think of a lot of things that are even more school-related that we don't allow students to do during class time.  Some teachers might want to try to stop students from doing math homework long enough to explain an English project during English class.        

But the Olympics is bigger than math.  It's an infrequent spectacle that brings our country together.  This is true.  And from that vantage point, it's really not a big deal to miss a little school for the sake of community.

But what is disconcerting about the board's view, and of many schools' practice of showing the Olympics in auditoriums, is how contrary it is to everything else we're being told this year.  Aye, there's the rub.

Shortly after reading the board's blessing, I replied with this tweet, tongue-in-cheek (couldn't copy and paste it as a tweet for some reason):
"I'm struggling to determine my learning goals for this activity as reflective of the essential learnings tied to my curriculum."
And then I swiftly deleted it.  People love the Olympics, and how dare I bring opposition onto the floor, particularly in a forum frequented by students hoping for a snow day and, at the very least, looking forward to an afternoon of passive viewing - a group, I hasten to add, who used many nasty words and threats when the board chose to keep school open on a very cold day this year.

But I maintain the sentiment.  Since September, we have been directed towards an approach to learning that must now overtly and clearly link everything we do in class to the curriculum.  There's no more room to go off on student-directed tangents until they run their course.  As I understand it - and my understanding of it shifts regularly - we are required to determine how best to evaluate student understanding of essential learnings based on each course's individual curriculum documents, then provide transparent learning goals daily (or close to daily) to help the students understand why and how they will reach the final target of satisfying the curriculum requirements.  For my purposes, it means if I have a class that is going to town on discrimination issues, we can't just take an extra week or two to do more exploration on it because then we won't have sufficient time to cover the rest of the learning expectations for the course.  And covered they must be or else no students, technically and officially, will have passed the course.

I'm getting on board with the more stringent approach, but how do the Olympics fit in here?  For some courses, it's an easy curricular tie-in.  Not mine.  Maybe I could fudge something but is that what the board is hoping we'll do?  Or are the AER rules out the window when it's convenient for them.  Or does school spirit trump AER?  I hope it does.  And I hope this series of tweets from the board office is an indication that we can all relax and not fret so when the AER-police drop in, as is expected, to ask our students what the learning goals and success criterion are for my specific lesson today.

It's a shame they didn't drop by this afternoon!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

On Flag Waving

The twin-cities, Kitchener and Waterloo, have both decided to put a rainbow flag inside city hall for the duration of the Olympics rather than fly one outside the building.

From The Record:
[Coun. Frank] Etherington [who proposed the motion] was critical of the city's flag solution. "My argument was (putting the flag inside) in no way was as good as a very open, very public demonstration of the city's support for gay athletes and to protest the Russian laws which discriminate," he said. "There's no comparison between the two (flag options) … one tucked away inside the rotunda and the other flying."
Many cities have decided to fly the flag outside their city hall including Ottawa, Edmonton, Montreal, Guelph, Hamilton, and, yes, even Toronto has a flag on a "courtesy flagpole" outside city hall despite Ford's protests.

Some Mayors, like Ottawa's Jim Watson, "ordered the pride flag raised immediately."

But not us.

I'd like to address one type of comment in support of K-W's position runs along the lines of, "But the Canadian flag already supports being inclusive.  That's all we need."  Some see our flag as representative of the Charter even though the flag came out in 1965 and the Charter in 1982.

The flag is a symbol of Canada, and Canada is not inclusive.  We need to acknowledge that fact and a few raised flags might be a symbol of our effort to develop that myth of inclusivity into a reality.  I'd like to go further than the Olympic issue to see at least three flags raised until no longer necessary, until we've proven ourselves in the eyes of the excluded:

1.  The Rainbow/Pride Flag.  We just put a transgender woman in a male prison cell.  We still have way too many LGBTQ teenagers committing or attempting suicide because they can't take the bullying - much of which happens in our public school systems.  We are so much better than many countries on this front, legalizing gay marriage nine whole years ago.  But being better than some, doesn't make the slip-ups any more acceptable.  We're still working on this one even if we like to think we're done.

2.  First Nation Flags.  Do I have to say anything about the unbelievable treatment of First Nation peoples in Canada?  About the schools being inequitable even though it's right in the Constitution Act of 1982, Part III (the charter is Part I),  that Parliament and the legislatures are committed to...
"(a) promoting equal opportunities for the well-being of Canadians; (b) furthering economic development to reduce disparity in opportunities; and (c) providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians."
People often call on residential schools as the main indicator of Canada's poor treatment of the First Nations, then respond to their own concern with, "But that's all over now.  It's all in the past."  Straw man much?   We haven't stopped discriminating.  If we can't take the land, we'll use it as a garbage dump.  On it goes.  Blarg.

3.  Anti-Slavery Flags.  I'm not sure how to word this one, or what kind of flag to encourage, but we haven't stopped using slaves to do our work, we've just outsourced them to other countries.  We benefit from the work of teenagers working over 60 hours a week for token pay in China so we can have cheap products here.  We turn a blind eye to actual slavery, just as bad or worse as anything that happened in 12 Years a Slave, on cocao plantations so we can eat cheap chocolate.  Until we refuse to support slavery conditions worldwide, I can't understand how we can call ourselves inclusive.  Inclusive shouldn't be allowed to mean, "We'll be nice to you and give you equal rights and all if you're on our soil, but otherwise we'll totally screw you over for our own benefit. "

No, Canada is neither inclusive nor equitable.  I think we're trying, though.  And I hope that the one good thing Harper's government is doing is helping us find one another, find the marginalized and supporters among us who are willing to rally for real change.  Something like that.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

On Mesothelioma: Dying to be Heard

Today isn't just Groundhog's Day, it's "Lung Leavin' Day" - a commemorative day sparked by Heather Von St. James who had her lung removed eight years ago today due to mesothelioma.  Check out the ritual she cultivated on her website and an interview with her here.  This is a very specific cancer caused by asbestos exposure.  Most people diagnosed don't last a year, but she was lucky to find a specialist who was willing to remove a lung to save her life.

How to tell if your tiles are asbestos.
She wore her dad's work coat as a kid.  That's all it takes.

Asbestos is in many older building - any construction done in your home or workplace pre-1980s might mean you have asbestos lurking somewhere:  insulation in your attic or ceiling tiles above your head as you work.  It's one of those things I try not to think about too much as I go about my day in my 87-year-old house, and 159-year-old school.  And let's not talk about the number of old houses I've gutted over the years when I stupidly took no precautions, as I'm sure many don't.

Somehow I'm wary of lead paint, wearing full body-armour and a ventilator to strip wood, but oblivious to asbestos wearing only a t-shirt and shorts to put in a floor on top of the attic insulation.  Attention must be paid.

And some still want to export it.
"As recently as 2010, Canada was producing 150,000 tonnes of asbestos annually, all of it in Quebec, and exporting 90 per cent — worth about $90 million — to developing countries. More than 50 countries ban the mining and use of asbestos because it causes cancer, but Canada, traditionally a major exporter, has successfully lobbied in the past to keep it off a UN list of hazardous substances."
A park in Sarnia - a former asbestos producer - was recently closed last spring because they found asbestos in the soil.
The Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec.
Premier Pauline Marois
The Jeffrey Mine in Quebec is the last of them, and the province, under Marois, refused to financially help them restart production.  Ottawa offered $50 million to keep the plant open, but Quebec refused it.  And a lot of people lost their jobs.   It's been "temporarily closed" since October 2011.

It's a hopeful sign, at the very least, that some politicians can sometimes see the forest for the trees.  It's always horrible to take away jobs from people in need, but those jobs are deadly -  for the employees, their families, and anyone working with the product down the line.   We have to focus on the bigger picture in everything we do from here on in.  Of course we need sufficient help for those affected by the immediate changes to our economy, but change it must.       

Monday, January 20, 2014

Further to York University's Discrimination Issues...

If you haven't heard, a York University prof denied a student's request to work in all male groups for religious reasons.  York's Centre for Human Rights suggested the student should be granted the request to avoid being with women in public.   I commented with my views here:
I see education as a stepping stone for the working world. If he expects to work in Canada, he has to get used to working with women, so it's in the male student's best interest to find a way to cope with this expectation within a Canadian institution.
Then today I was reviewing the new Ontario Curriculum for Social Sciences and Humanities for a course I'm teaching, and I came across this bit:
"Accommodations consistent with the board’s religious accommodations guidelines must be made for students from various faith communities – for example, same-sex partnering for small-group activities may be required" (43).    
That's in the section called "Equity and Inclusive Education."  So it appears we're to be inclusive by honouring a wide variety of moral precepts even if there's an inherent sexism within.  But, of course, what if my religion sees a specific ethnicity or race as unclean and basically scum, and suggests I "smite them, and utterly destroy them" (Deuteronomy 7:2)?  It seems far less likely to see accommodations made to avoid a specific race within a Canadian governmental publication.  And that's a problem.  It's not, of course, that we should all be allowed to avoid communicating with undesirables or anyone that might awaken temptation if it's suggested by our religion, but that nobody should be able use religion to be exclusionary.  It seems to me a religious doctrine cannot be allowed to override human rights in a Canadian institution.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Tao of Environmentalism

At Politics Respun, Stephen Elliott-Buckley suggests we make decarbonizing our New Year's resolution.  In a fit of frustration, I commented thusly:

What does it look like to join you? I mean I'm totally in, but what do I do to "seriously begin to decarbonize"? 
How to stop this?
I already don't own a car, freezer, clothes drier, or A/C, and I've got solar panels for electricity, but I still heat my house with natural gas. Do I have to get a fireplace and go completely off-grid - using zero fossil fuels - because my neighbours already think I'm a bit weird for the panels? 
I already write to Harper enough he sent my an 8x10 signed glossy as if he's a rock star getting fan mail, but my letters aren't having much of an effect. I can't convince many of my students that climate change is a tragedy caused by our unfettered use of energy, so I can't convince them to write angry letters or protest either. They tolerate having the lights off when I teach on sunny days, but I can't get other teachers to turn them off as well.
I'll keep trying on all these fronts, but I fear there are more of them than us. Most people just won't fight to end their own conveniences. Not yet, and, therefore, not nearly soon enough. 
Like the plethora of sites that tell us HOW to lose ten pounds with one neat trick, we need to know the next steps. HOW do we convince the elites - or even just our neighbours and friends - to radically change our world? How do we change the minds of the many who are happy with Harper? How radical are we willing to be to save our species?
His very sympathetic response, in part, after a good-for-you bit, went like this:
Teachers, I find, are not a terribly progressive bunch. I knew maybe 5% of people on staff, when I was a teacher, who understood what walking the talk looks like. But keep trying and cling to those colleagues who do get it. 
We convince the elites by threatening their power. Elected or wannabe-elected politicians need our support. If we can mobilize to hold that support in the balance, based on obeying our climate agenda, we will win. It’s mobilizing that effort. But when the federal green party [generally a pro-capitalist/consumer party] SUPPORTS* the tarsands, we have a long way to go. 
And it may just make more ice storms, Calgary/Toronto floods and effects of climate change to wake up the apathetic and complacent people. But by then it may be too late. We’ll have to see.
So...okay.   We just have to mobilize people who are largely apathetic or ignorant, but we might not be able to in time.

My point exactly.

The Tyee also has a call out to become "conscious, anti-consumerist warriors."  Like Politics Respun, they call 2014, "...the year of living - and giving - consciously.  Up until now, we haven't been serious."

Well, speak for yourself - although I was convinced to donate more.  But, once again, how to convince the masses?

We tend to see it all as a problem of justice, of stopping the evilness of the few.  But, it's not that the 1% are making evil decisions that need to be rectified, but that the masses are benefitting too greatly from many of these decisions to ever really try to stop them.  We think we're the good, but I'm not so convinced.  Scott Neigh has a post up that says it better:
"Some of us are the passive beneficiaries (and often celebrators) of the brutal violence that our state dishes out. Some of us are the exploited but still relatively privileged guardians and enforcers of how things are. That doesn't mean that life is all sunshine and roses. That doesn't mean that resistance isn't necessary, or even that resistance to oppression and exploitation isn't integral to daily life in important ways for many white North Americans -- it clearly is, and that is something to acknowledge, respect, support, and nurture....In real life, most of humanity is not clearly divided into the righteous, the shepherds, and the tyranny of evil men -- the lives of most ordinary people express a mix of the three."
It's not us against them. It's us against us.

And then I watched this George Carlin anti-environmentist rant, and it provoked a few thoughts.  (Sorry, lots of swears, of course: it's freakin' George Carlin!)

Carlin says the planet will be fine.  I agree a big mass will likely continue on, pretty definitely, but its ability to support life might not – or not for a long time. So the fight is not just about people but about all other living things. Extinctions happen, but not at this rate. We really have sped thing up.  And, closer to his point, it's never happened to us before!  

Our "indicator species" are messed up
I've said before that our problem is that we're viruses, and that we're too compassionate to live within nature since we want to make sure as many of us live as possible (but not too compassionate, however, to allow many to live horribly for the conveniences of the few).  A student recently gave me another analogy to use:  we're like an invasive species.  We're doing all we can to survive and spread to our outer limits, just like every other creature in the world, except we have no predators here.  There are no outer limits - yet.  Or, another way to see it is we're like the fox/mouse cycle in nature except with a really long scale.  We will hit that food shortage that will finally keep our population in check, just maybe not before we hit fatal hydrogen sulfide levels in our air.  That'll work too.

Long-term survival of the species requires selfish acts to keep the world going in the future - yes it is about us - but they work against the selfish acts to keep us entertained and convenienced in the present.  And it all comes back to Plato's admonishment that we need to be taught the art of measurement (the ability to measure future rewards/consequences against those closer and more current).  I'm not convinced we can be taught.

So maybe Carlin's right about this:  We are arrogant to think we are better able to deal with this than any other animal.  You'd think we have large enough brains to see the long game - and a few do, but not the same few who hold all the power.  The powerful bunch are the survivors defending their territory (in dollars) and spreading out as far as they can, in denial of the potential for a major total-planet catastrophe.  And, a key problem is, if the ones who see the long game get power, they sometimes start amassing wealth instead.   If we're offered enough cash today to ignore the problems of tomorrow, not many can resist that deal.  And those that can resist, often don't go for the power anyway, so they remain impotent to change anything.  It's a conundrum.  

Unlike what we understand of most mammals' grasp of the world, humans have the ability to understand time - to look to the past in order to predict the future.  But a fat lot of good it does us!!  

And the Tao Te Ching (ch. 29, which I've also discussed before) backs up Carlin's rant:
"Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred. It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe, a time for being in danger.  
The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle."
It's certainly more calming to accept that this is the way of the world, and it's not something we can change.  We can barely manage to keep our own house in order much less worldwide eco-systems.

But is refusing to keep badgering the politicians and our friends and relations just giving up and admitting defeat or is it accepting the way of the world?  Or does it just feel like a cop-out?  It certainly feels more selfish to decide to turn up the heat than it does to try to convince governments to shut down the tar sands.  It feels better to be part of the solution even if it's really out of our hands, but maybe just because we like spinning our wheels.

As Carlin suggests glibly, "So pack your shit, folks; we're goin' away!"

*I can't find a link to any news that says the Greens support the tar sands, but I did find one that says the NDP supports a Canadian west-to-east pipeline.  Drag.  When Mulcair said "no" to a wealth tax, it gave credence to a suspected shift:  the Liberals are the new Conservatives, and the NDP are the new Liberals.  And I fear we don't really have a significant left-leaning party anymore when we really need one.