Thankful Thursday VI – Kudos Time

This Thursday, I’m thankful for “time”. In every way. I’m always grateful for time which I have to do the things I love, which never seem quite enough. It’s clear to me that you can make back money you lose or repurchase most items which break but there’s no getting back a minute of time once it’s gone. But for this day, I’m thinking of it in a different context – Time magazine.

It’s one of those pieces of Americana that seems to have always been around. (In fact, it’s been published for 98 years) It’s been a staple on newsstands for as long as I can remember … back to when there were newsstands, for instance! I remember seeing it and it’s distinctive red-bordered cover on the tables in the waiting room when I had to go to the doctor as a kid and coming through the mailslot week after week at home. Now that I’m an adult, our household still subscribe to it. I try to find the “time” to read Time somewhere along the line every week.

For the few who might not be familar with it, Time is the last of its breed. A weekly news magazine. Back in the pre-internet age, it was what you read to get the big picture and the in-depth look at the big stories of the past seven days. Sure, you’d read your newspaper too, but Time gave you more detail and covered stories your local daily probably overlooked. Ironically, that’s even more true today in the internet age with our 24-hour news channels and 20-page daily newspapers featuring mostly public service notices and wire stories about celebs.

Being an American publication, Time focuses largely on American stories, but it finds the room to look at global issues better than most of our other media. Australian elections, Italian landslides, African massacre, new disease in China – it probably is in the pages of Time, long before it catches the attention of your hometown news station. And it covers a variety of topics. Sure there’s the news – largely bad as is the nature of news – but there are also interviews with interesting newsmakers, entertainment updates, movie, book reviews and context. Why does that Aussie election matter? What causes the Italian landslide or new emerging diseases.?

Sure, I have my criticisms of the magazine. To me, it bends over too far to be politically correct and avoid any charges of racism, or sexism or ageism. You won’t lose a bet if you say that any issue of theirs with the “100 Most Influential People in the World” (which weirdly seem to change in their opinion each year) at least ten of those 100 will be Women of Color under age 40 who write about the experience of being young Women of Color. And like most other hard-copy periodicals, it seems to have shrunken somewhat in physical size (as in number of pages) and roster of contributors. All that said, it’s still the best one-stop weekly review I know of. In the past year alone, it’s covered the Covid pandemic more often and in more depth, with stories from those on the fronts of battling it, as well as those effected by it more than almost all other news sources I’ve seen combined. In the months leading up to last November, it had in-depth interviews with pretty much every major political candidate running.

A throwback to a “time” when people wanted to be well-informed and when a magazine didn’t have to be micro-focused in content to succeed. Good “Time”s indeed. I’m thankful to still have Time.

Stimulus Cheques Aren’t The Only Thing That Will Be Out There

Fox Mulder must be grinning because, it seems, within six months the truth will be out there, to paraphrase The X-files skeptic.

Seems like it’s good not to tempt fate by suggesting “well 2021 can’t get any weirder than the one we just went through”. Because lost in the news static about the pandemic, the election passed and the one which was coming up (which is to say the Georgia senate) and all the other things, lost in almost 5600 pages of government snooze-talk was a little item which might just vindicate Mulder. And the real life champions of his TV cause. Because in those 5000+ pages of the Pandemic “Stimulus” bill designed to extend unemployment benefits and give taxpayers those beloved $600 cheques, there’s a directive to the Pentagon and “spy agencies” to spill the beans about aliens.

Nope, I’m not making that up. News agencies from Fox News to Yahoo all have confirmed there’s a bit in there telling the military and the “spy agencies” as well as the Director of National Intelligence to report within 180 days to Congress and the Armed Services. They are to basically tell them everything you wanted to know about UFOs but were afraid to ask. It should contain “detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomenon”, the current preferred term for “UFOs” or “little green men.” Apparently it managed to do what nothing else in the public forum these days did – namely have full “bipartisan support.” Wait – they can’t agree on the wording for relief payments to out of work people they both agree should happen, but they are all now A-OK with the story behind Roswell, the Phoenix lights and other things like that being revealed? 2021 can’t get any weirder? “Hold my beer,” the government says.

This perhaps should come as little surprise. In the past few years, the U.S. military has verified some videos taken by fighter pilots of UFOs deftly out-manueovring them, albeit still declaring them inexplicable. And already this year a senior Harvard professor put out a paper stating that our galaxy was visited by alien life recently when a large object at first thought to be a comet went for a fly-by and defied gravity by zooming at, then speeding away from the sun. The old “weather balloon” or “drunk hicks seeing swamp gas” explanations are wearing thin even for the types more like Mulder’s partner, Scully, denying anything’s out there to the moment she’s beamed into one of the spaceships.

Will it happen? Who knows? The government is great at few things, but stonewalling is one of them. And even if it does issue some sort of report, there’s no saying it will be made available for public consumption…. although its equally true that these days, if hundreds of politicians have access to the papers, one might expect at least one will leak them to a friendly media type.

Personally, I’ve been fascinated by the subject for a long time. I think a lot of “UFOs” are actually identifable – high altitude planes, military tests, shooting stars and what have you. I also think some are very impossible to explain any way other than mechanical devices controlled by intelligent life. Probably more intelligent than ours as humans. I figure when you go out in the country and look up at a clear night sky, and see those thousands of stars, each one might have planets circling around it, just like our sun, and for each one of those that we see, thousands more are beyond our eyesight or telescope range. It actually seems like some pretty big amount of hubris to think that we are the one and only lifeform out there.

Expect the unexpected. That might be the best bet if you are looking for a 2021 slogan. And, “the truth is out there.”

After The Storm Of ’20, A Rainbow Ahead

Whew! We made it. 2020 is done and we have a new start, a new chance, simply called 2021. May it be one we’ll look back on as … “forgettable.” Seriously. When you think about it, the one thing that is undeniable about ’20 is that it was… “memorable”.

There’s a lot to say about 2020 and what may lie ahead. I have just a few thoughts on the topic. Off the top of my head, I’d say that yes, 2020 was a pretty terrible year… but it could end up being a useful, if not positive, one if we can learn from it down the road. Enough things have gone wrong in the past year to perhaps act as a global GPS for society at large, pointing the safe path ahead. And while almost everyone of us has had problems and losses in 2020, it would be remiss not to consider them and try to make some sense out of them. Find the hidden meaning; reassess.

Here in North America, the news has been pretty much dominated by two things for the past ten months – the pandemic and American politics, in particular the presidential election. Both should teach us a few things.

The pandemic has shown us that we’re part of a big, worldwide community for instance. It’s a message we were fortunate to have escaped earlier in the century when diseases like SARS, MERS and Ebola raged elsewhere. They largely stayed overseas, out of sight, out of mind. Covid has shown all too clearly that problems in China and in the Third World can quickly be our problems. Throw in a season with an unprecedented 30 hurricanes or tropical storms in the Atlantic and record-burning fires in the U.S. West and Australia and we should be reminded that as smart as our species is, we’re still at the mercy of God or Mother Nature, or whatever name you’d like to give to forces far beyond our control. So maybe we should start trying to live in better harmony with this little planet we call home.

It tells me that we need to take a moment and reconsider the importance of some things we took for granted before. If or when this virus is wrestled under control, imagine how wonderful it will be to hug a friend you hadn’t seen for months that you bump into in a store – while not having to wear a mask no less! A good time to consider how important those close to you are… and frankly, perhaps jettison some that clogged up your life before. Months or not seeing people can tell your heart if they are needing of more of future you, or less. I know for me, I will be glad to be able to pop into a store I drive by on a whim without worrying about if the risk is worth it, without putting on a mask and plastic gloves… but I’ll also probably do so a lot less thanI once did. Hey, if I went nine months without needing to go in there, I probably don’t need to go nine months from now just because i have a few minutes to spare.

When it comes to the politics, I don’t envy Joe Biden. He has his work cut out with the economy still tanked due to the virus and the nation practically divided in half. Forget Trump’s Mexican wall, he has managed to pop the last few bricks onto a virtual wall dividing the populace in half that had been forged over the past decade. Republican vs Democrat. Black vs White. Urban vs rural. Cable vs Netflix… these days it seems like no detail is too small to make people hate one another.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do hope though that he, and the government, will look to ways to make future elections more fool-proof and avoid the kind of stupidity we’ve seen this time around. I’m an environmentalist, but I still have to say that there is something to be said for paper ballots, with a circle to be inked in beside the name of the candidate of your choice, dropped into a locked box, opened and counted with representatives of both parties right there to over-see. Hard for foreign operatives to fiddle with that. There’s zero evidence any of the recent elections were tampered with across the U.S., but with electronic balloting there is potential for it to happen. Why not eliminate the chance?

And rather than divide people more, I hope we’ll see some sort of unification happening in the coming year. Years. That will be a tough job. I dare say an impossible one to do completely, but there is hope the chasms can be lessened, wounds healed. While I don’t know precisely how to do that, I think it wouldn’t hurt to focus on the things most of us agree on still … in a land of 310 million people, many of them ill-informed and prejudiced, there may be no one thing everyone will agree on. But for starters I think most will agree in:

the American Dream. If you work hard and are honest, you should make a living wage, and have a chance to move ahead, make a better life.

Education for our kids. Certainly there are different definitions of what a good education is, or how to deliver it, but most of us know that our kids need as good an education to get them on their way in life as we can give them.

a Liveable Environment. We’re tired of masks, we generally agree we want fresh air to breathe without needing to wear a mask to go outside; we want clean water to drink. Similarly we want a safe neighborhood. Almost all of us want to feel safe stepping outside their door or going to work, to school.

Equal Opportunity. Quotas and the like are divisive, but most would agree that if you have the talent and are the best candidate, you should have the job, or the spot in the classroom or the show on TV.

Democracy itself. Lord knows, we have different interpretations of how it’s been functioning of late, but most all of us still believe in people picking the government that will rule them and steer our lives and our nation, which in turn should

make the U.S. a Role Model. Few Americans would disagree that it’s not desirable for the country to be despised around the world. There must be a better way to have “United Nations” than to have them united in hatred of the U.S. We should be a beacon, a showcase of what people can do when they have opportunity.

Yep, that’s not a complete guide for utopia. Figuring out how these beliefs can be best implemented will even be cause for arguments aplenty. But if we continue to use them as guides, we might have a better chance than by looking at all the things we disagree about!

That’s my hope for 2021’s world. The bar is set pretty low. But we think 2021 can clear it. Happy New Year to all of you … and thanks for checking in here.

Mexico’s Improbable Star

Youtube launched the career of Justin Bieber. He was an unknown Canadian kid, putting home videos on the website when he was “discovered” and a year or two later, we all cursed Youtube. But we knew Bieber’s name. It seemed fitting because to many, like me, when you think “Youtube” you think music. The new MTV, a video jukebox of music videos both official, and homemade by fans. But there are of course, a lot more things going on that lure the billion-plus users to the site some five billion times a day!

I for instance am a weather nerd, and have seen countless videos of tornadoes and other storms from the ground captured on video by both professional storm chasers and amateurs who happened to be at the right (or wrong?) place at the right time. My sweetie loves seasonal decorations and has found a whole network of ordinary people who craft and decorate their homes for July 4th, fall, Easter, Guy Fawkes day, Halloween, and of course Christmas. She’s gotten a few good ideas from them and doubtlessly hours of relaxation watching Dollar Tree signs being repainted into something decorative and pumpkins repurposed. Recently the two of us happened upon one of the internet’s most unlikely stars – Dona Angela, a 70 year-old Mexican grandmother.

Angela is an aging farm wife who lives in Michoacan, a rural area of southern Mexico, and speaks no English. She cooks traditional Mexican food in a most rustic way… and has over three million followers!

Remarkably, the Spanish-speaking lady who seemingly has no running water nor kitchen in the house, only began posting videos mid-way through 2019. One of her daughters (her two daughters and husband occasionally show up on her videos to assist, or enjoy her finished food) was a Youtube fan and started recording her mom with the phone and posting the videos. Within two months, the “channel” – De Mi Ranch e Tu Cocina (“from my ranch to your kitchen”) had hit an extraordinary million subscribers. Now it’s well past triple that, and some individual clips, like one for enchiladas have been seen over seven million times.

Dona cooks in what seems to be an outdoor, but partly enclosed kitchen, which revolves around a large wood-fired stove. She uses mainly traditional implements like a molcajete, a stone mortar and pestle she grinds spices and flattens dough on. The tomatoes, peppers, avocadoes and more come from her garden as do, one would suspect, the chickens and pigs that provide most of the meat and occasionally wander by. She says “I don’t use measurements, I just grab with my fingers.” When you’re 70 and have probably been cooking for six of those seven decades, you can probably do that and get good results! Likewise, the cooking temperature is unregulated since it’s just coming from a wood fire in an iron stove. Her one concession to modern times is an electric blender she likes for her sauces. She shows you the ingredients, how she prepares them, how she cooks them up, in a variety of old metal and clay pots and pans, and let’s you know how they turned out … mostly “just like I like it!”. This I, and most of us, know from the subcaptions, since she speaks only Spanish. One video showed her getting Youtube award plaques for hitting first 100 000 then one million subscribers. She opens the boxes and is obviously delighted with, but she and her daughter tell the viewers there’s a congratulatory letter too but neither of them can read it, since it’s in English.

Over the wood fire she creates a mouth-watering assortment of Mexican staples like salsa, mole (a type of soup, not the little critter), napoles or cactus, tortiallas and of course, tamales.

Forbes recently listed her along with Selma Hayek as one of the most influential women in Mexico. One could imagine that with that endorsement, not to mention the Youtube plaques, she could easily turn the fame into a Food Network show and big-selling cookbook. “The Pioneer Woman From South of the Border!” Nor is it hard to cynically wonder if the wood stove and rugged kitchen it sits in aren’t a soundstage, perhaps beside a fancy home with state of the art food processors and microwaves. But that’s not Dona, apparently. Both the Houston Chronicle and NPR have featured her lately, and both failed to be able to get her to speak to them. She will apparently answer a few questions about her cooking, or defend herself to critics who suggest her stove looks dirty or such, but when it comes to mainstream media… and the dollars they represent… she’s a ghost. Making herself a “star”, or getting rich by her recipes isn’t in her plans apparently. Making more tamales and atoles by hand over a fire outside, for her family to enjoy, are.

I think there are a few takeaways from this.

For instance, these days we can become successful on a low budget. Yes, it’s still uncommon, but one can become a well-loved author without having Random House or Penguin backing you; one can become a star musician in your basement with a computer, an instrument or two and video camera. That’s a definite plus to social media, a part of our lives which has its share of negative attributes as well. A 70 year old cooking tamales outdoors in the 1980s would have been known only as far and wide as her crowing roosters could be heard. Now, she can be an international influencer. A tween Justin Bieber singing in his bathroom in the 1970s would have likely been stacking cans of beans at his local Loblaws ten years later, not on magazine covers. I suppose we shouldn’t blame the internet for that…

Secondly, we all have stories to tell and talents to share. You might not be able to cook from scratch, but if you can fix an oil pump or make a nice wreath for your door at Christmas for ten bucks or get rid of a wasp nest in your shed without using toxic sprays, or…well, you get the idea, there are people who’d like to know how. You can make others’ lives better by sharing. Likewise, maybe you have lived through history. Veterans. White House staff. People in the San Francisco earthquake in the ’80s. Firefighters. Best boys on 20th Century Fox sets. All have stories that would be interesting for the rest of us to hear. I bet you do too.

As well, your own family’s history is worth documenting… and there’s no better time than now. Maybe it’s the food you cook, like Angela, maybe it’s the trips you took, maybe it’s the array of cars you owned or the girlfriends/boyfriends you hung out with before you got married… there are a lot of stories there that you might like recalling. And future generations will thank you for. My mom was in London during “the blitz” in World War II. She saw the Queen Mother walking around the rubble talking to people, which probably colored her views on the royal family for life at a very young age. My dad worked with John Kay of Steppenwolf, before he was a rock star in Steppenwolf. So many stories and traditions to share… it might not make for Youtube videos, but that part of your heritage is worth preserving, just like Dona’s old ways of making her own tortillas.

Lastly, be authentic. Be yourself. Dona Angela is. She could wear designer clothes, disguise the wrinkles on her face, flash name brand spices and fancy cookware at the camera. Maybe sip on a Coca Cola with the label front and center in exchange for endorsements, be phoning up the newspapers and public radio for interviews to talk up her web videos. But she does none of that, and her fans love her for it. We already have enough fake “reality” anyway.

Maybe you’ll never get to three million subscribers on Youtube, or 100 000 readers here on WordPress or be on any list made by Forbes. But you do have something to say, and share.

Making The Boys In Blue Better

Remember when we were kids and were taught that the policemen were our friends? Good guys? Watching the news lately, one wonders what happened. If you believe a lot of news stories and critics these days, the cops are the criminals and the ones good people should be terrified of. Hell, shows like Cops have been canceled to placate the riled and a widely-circulated article online called Olivia – champion of women victims in the long-running Law & Order, SVU  show a “bastard” simply by virtue of her character being a police officer. It’s a tough time to be a “boy in blue”. Or girl in blue for that matter.

Watching the isolated video clips, there’s little wonder to be surprised. The death of George Floyd was clearly heinous and a blatantly criminal over-reaction to a minor crime he apparently committed and the only thing more reprehensible than the Buffalo cops shoving 75 year old Martin Gugino, causing him to smash his head and suffer a fractured skull, was the other riot police walking by him ignoring the bleeding senior. Or maybe the president defending them suggesting Gugino was a terrorist waving some magic wand that could eliminate all police communications systems.

It’s all a lot for me to take in. I always figured there were bound to be a few bad cops – a tiny minority – but for the most part they were honorable, hard-working people devoted to the common good. But watching some of these videos and seeing reactions like the entire Buffalo riot squad resigning in support of their violent comrades and some police hide their ID tags to prevent being identified makes me rethink how few and far between bad ones are.

It’s sad. I come from a slightly (only slightly, but still) calmer, more peaceful country, Canada. We’ve seen cops do some bad things there too, but such reports are definitely less common than on this side of the 49th Parallel. I grew up near Toronto, in a county (or “regional municipality” as we call it) that had two large cities within its borders plus a fair expanse of rural farmland.The area had a population of over 600 000 and was growing fast, and was serviced by one regional police force. They had to deal with calls that ranged from bar brawls to biker gang rallies, bodies washing up on the Lake Ontario shoreline and coke smuggling to ice fishermen falling through the ice on rural lakes in winter and the occasional bear wandering into a town.

A friend – actually a girlfriend’s big brother at the time – joined the force and soon was on their Swat team. Outside of work he was easy-going, fast with a smile and able to get along with people of any number of backgrounds equally well. A good guy, and I presume, a good cop. I had a job for over a decade in a pro camera store and lab which had the contract with the police to provide their camera gear and develop their films. We had to be vetted, and no wonder. Through the years there, not a murder happened that I (and most of us in there) didn’t end up seeing photos of – crime scene, victim, weapons, autopsy, accused, you name it. We developed film after film of car accidents, assaults, robberies, suicides and anything else that asked for a police documentation. I was told that it was as good as a “get out of jury duty free” ticket since we all had such intimate knowledge of the big cases, much of which never made the news wire stories, we’d never be approved to be on a jury. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the cops. Many of the “Soco” officers (Scene of Crime), the patrol officers with cameras that would handle basic B&Es, minor car accidents and the like as well as the entire “Ident” (Forsensic Identification Unit) crew of specialized investigators akin to the TV CSI people. I knew the homicide squad by name,loaded supplies into their trucks.

And what I found was that they were good guys. I say “guys” because the vast majority of them were male, although there was a female homicide cop – a rather pretty one truth be told, although unlike a Hollywood version of her kind, one who went to work in baggy cargo pants and body armor instead of Dior dresses and heels! They were different – some were a lot younger than me, some were a decade or more older and nearing retirement, and their personalities were varied as would be with any group of dozens of people. A few were very intense and hyper, some had wicked senses of humor and wouldn’t leave without sharing a joke. Many brought in pictures of their home . Wives, kids, weekends fishing, photographing birds or working with body builders or redoing old car bodies. Some would talk about the cases and what they saw, others avoided the topics completely. But the one through and through feature was they all seemed like absolutely decent people working to make the area better and safer. Guys you’d be very relieved to see drive up if someone was trying to get into your back door at night, or happy enough to have a coffee with if you ran into them at the Tim Horton’s.

It makes comprehending the current American situation more difficult for me. I don’t have an easy solution to make the situation fine or ensure that police are all wonderful, or at least as good as the ones I used to rub shoulders with. But a few things seem to me like they’d be helpful .

First, an obvious one. We need the body cams and dash cams most forces already have. They should be on every police unit dashboard and clipped on every shirt or vest of an on-duty officer. The car ones should be triggered as soon as the warning lights or siren are activated and the cops should be instructed to activate the body cams every time they leave their vehicle on a call. Disabling the cameras would be grounds for termination of their employment. Even an honest person can lose track of exactly was happening in a chaotic situation and the camera can show us better what went wrong, or right for that matter. The dishonest one of course, will realize they’ll have less chance of getting away with misbehavior if they’re being recorded.

Speaking of their cars and shirts or vests, I think having fewer unmarked or undercover people and cars would benefit all. Obviously, there are situations where undercover work is necessary. Police couldn’t infiltrate, say a street gang that robbed stores and sold crack around the neighborhood if they were dressed in uniform and driving cars with a fancy blue light array on the roof. But more and more police work seems to be undertaken by people in street clothes driving unmarked cars and trucks and as a result we see more stories like shootouts at raids where the inhabitants claim the police stormed in with no way of being identified as police as opposed to street thugs. If they’re wearing the blue or black shirts with the badge and drove up, lights flashing, there’d be little defence for them being shot at.

In Ontario, there’s a Special Investigations Unit. It’s a government branch which is automatically called in to police the police, if you will, any time a civilian dies in a police operation or other serious incidents (like car accidents ) occur involving on duty police. The local force have to step aside and let the SIU investigate to see if there was any wrong-doing. There are several “teams” for the province, but usually they aren’t from the same town they are investigating. It’s not perfect. For one thing, the majority of people hired to the SIU are former cops themselves, which has led to calls of bias. But the idea is valid and if the investigators would include a wider cross-section of the populace, would be a great way to ensure that police negligence or worse, crimes, weren’t covered up. States should have the same sort of investigators.

Finally, the concept of being a police officer needs to change. In parts of the country at least. It is a vital function for society. It is a trying job with gigantic responsibility. It calls for wisdom, good physical conditioning, great communications skills and a moral compass pointing squarely north. It needs to be seen as an important career, not just a job for any Joe. As such, the country needs uniform minimum standards to be a cop, and in most locations, the bar needs raising. More training is needed, which should include psychological courses and testing, cultural studies, anger management courses as well as studies of the law and weaponry and driving under adverse conditions. It might take a couple of years before a young person was qualified to be a policeman or woman, but we’d be relatively assured of having high quality individuals doing the job when they graduated. And that, I might add, may well require paying them more. Not every prospective cop would like that added training, and not every taxpayer would like being faced with potentially increased municipal taxes, but in the end, if our streets are safer, are downtowns aren’t being burned down and the police aren’t suffocating citizens on the streets, it should be a trade-off we’re willing to make.

May Hooray 1

May is a cheery month, I think. Or at least it should be one. It’s bright, the weather’s getting nice, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, baseball is a quarter-way through the schedule and getting interesting (well, most years!), we’re able to shed our winter clothes. If you’re a student, the end of the school year is almost upon you and if you’re at work, we’re getting to the time of long weekends and summer holidays. May should be a fine month which uplifts us all.

Of course, this year is a bit different. “Covid 19” and “Social distancing” are running neck-and-neck for the most used new entries into our lexicon and both can make us nostalgic for ones which popped into popular use in recent years… things like “Gangham style.” Even “impeachment” see downright warm and fuzzy by comparison.

So since we’re all quite probably stressed about the virus, about our health and the health of the economy, this May looks a bit darker and drearier. But there’s still lots of good out there, lots to enjoy,so this month I’ll try to put out a few thoughts on things which we can be thankful for, or enjoy even in Pandemic Times. It’s an idea that’s not altogether new to me. In 2015, I put out a book (Thank Goodness – 101 Things To Be Grateful For Today) designed to do the same – make one see the good all around them every day.

So let’s start with a simple one…we can still spend time with our families and the ones we love at home. People are finding ways to have fun with their kids. Some families might even be re-discovering forgotten pleasures like playing board games together or running through their library of favorite old movies. And while many, like me, are missing pro baseball and the kids can’t play organized little league that doesn’t stop everyone from having a little fun on the diamond, like this father and son:

Try to enjoy your day, and if you have little ones, remember any day can be a special one.

Bryson Book Badgers Britain

I imagine a lot of you will be getting in a bit more reading time these days, even if not by choice. Publishers thank you, corona virus.

Anyway, my latest book read is The Road To Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. It is, like almost all of Bryson’s books, a humorous travelogue. This one is a trip across Britain, a follow-up to his first look at the UK, Notes From A Small Island, back about 20 years ago.

For the uninitiated, Bryson seems like a terrifc and fun guide whom we’d probably hate to hang out with. He has an attentive eye and great writing skill and a droll, sarcastic sense of humor. One which seems to find fault in almost everything and every situation, making life a bit tedious for those around him I’m sure.(Trying to buy a ticket for a train trip for instance, he complains the self-serve machine wouldn’t serve, forcing him to line up to deal with a rail rep “who had once answered a British Rail ad that said ‘wanted: cheerless bastard to deal with the public’”)

Bryson is American by birth but chose to relocate to the British Isles while middle aged. One has to wonder why, given the amount of complaints he has about the British public (he notes, for example that a study shows the average American won’t walk more than 600 feet to get anywhere and speculates that while once Brits were energetic, today that stat would hold up there too but the difference is the Brit would have to stop to get a tattoo and throw some garbage on the street before going 600 feet). He loves baseball – non-existant there – and seems indifferent to soccer, “football” to them, which is nearly a religion on that island.

That said, he finds much to like about Britain as well, mainly the examples of old architecture and the landscape.

I don’t know if i’ll be getting to the UK any year soon, but if I do, I’ll be taking along the book to help find some of the better parks, museums and small towns to visit… and which train stations to avoid! But even if I never get there, The Road to Little Dribbling is an entertaining read. Recommended for anyone who enjoys traveling or getting a taste of foreign cultures.

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 3

What will the new normal be when things finally revert back? Perhaps that’s the biggest question of all these days, even more than “when”.

I’m far from unique in pointing out that when things went back to “normal” eventually after the 9/11 attacks, we found that “normal” was different than had been on Sep. 10, 2001. It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest that Corona virus will be similar in that eventually, when it fades into the background or even disappears, things will be different. What does take imagination though is to figure out just how they’ll be different.

There will be some negatives for years to come, of that we can be sure. The economy’s already taken a major hit worldwide and we’re not even close to wrestling this illness to the ground. The “stimulus” package just passed in the U.S. is said to cost some two trillion dollars, and guess what – that’s got to come from somewhere. Yes, that’s probably very necessary to help out people losing their jobs through no fault of their own, temporarily at least, and having to pay unexpected out of pocket expenses but is also about $8000 per taxpayer country-wide. Expect either tax increases or cuts to other government services for years to come. Likely both.

Obviously, some businesses that are closed now may not come back. Many non-essential retailers are shut down for the time being in the name of public safety, and for some that are already teetering on the edge of oblivion, it may be too much to ever come back from. I’d be surprised to see an open Sears or JC Penney store in the future, personally. Same goes for Pier 1 as well. That company just closed about half of their whole chain just before this occurred, and I wouldn’t bet on the remaining 450 stores or so in the future. After all, the chain was already nearly completely bankrupt in good economic times; nice but expensive imported pillows, wall hangings and tableware may find an even smaller market in tough times that will follow. And yes, tougher times will follow.

People are going to lose their jobs, not only in companies like theirs which will probably go under. Right now the tourist trade is taking a beating, understandably, and while the beaches of Florida, the Eiffel Tower, Disney World, the pyramids of Egypt and so on will always be draws, if the economy shrinks, they may not draw as many people. It’s unlikely the government’s going to let major airlines or hotel chains fold entirely, but not unlikely they’ll shrink. Fewer tourists means fewer jets in the air, fewer pilots and flight attendants, fewer hotels needed. Not to mention fewer restaurants and bars near those attractions, fewer gas stations along the way.Hence fewer jobs.

I wonder too, if many businesses still operating but operating differently won’t choose to opt for the new ways. For instance, many stores have cut their hours (that made no sense to me in the case of supermarkets, which were already busy and seeing a jump in sales) … neighborhood “24 hour” Walgreens now close at 9 PM in many cities and it’s rare to find a supermarket or Walmart open before sunrise now. If they find people still find ways to shop during the reduced hours, will they revert to the old, longer hours that require more manpower and electricity down the road? Less all-night shopping, and thus fewer retail jobs may emerge from Corona. On the other hand, shopping online may become even more dominant than it has been up to now.

With many offices doing all they can now to get the majority of their staff working from home to prevent the spread of the illness, it’s not hard to imagine that if that goes without too many snags, they may not be anxious to bring their whole roster back to the home office five days a week. A lot more people may be telecommuting in the future, good for the bottom line of the corporations (less office space means less rent, electricity etc.), good perhaps for our environment (imagine the savings in gas for just an ordinary worker not driving perhaps ten miles a day to work… now multiply that by millions) but perhaps not good for socialization or for the real estate market.

Speaking of real estate, if the economy flounders for some time as a result of this virus, tough times may befall real estate agents. But it could be a bull market for Lowes and Home Depot, as well as books by those “Property Brothers” or Gainses of Fixer Upper fame as people decide to just “spruce up” the existing home instead of looking for a bigger and better one to move into.

Let’s hope though that some good things will arise from this mess. For instance, people are now hyper-vigilant about washing their hands and not standing near people coughing or sneezing. Perhaps that will become more of a habit down the road, and we’ll all be a little bit healthier in years to come. Same goes for staying home when you’re sick, which might become even more ingrained into our consciousness if more employers offer sick days as a result.On a bigger scale, perhaps governments, American especially (but others as well)  will see a positive aspect to perhaps spending more on defending their population’s health, even if it means spending just a little less on defending borders with space-age jets and missiles.

People are getting by without going out to the malls for recreation right now; while we don’t want to see large chains go out of business and people losing thousands of jobs, our society might do well by having some people realize that shopping is more a necessity from time to time than a daily recreational activity. If our society becomes even a little less consumeristic and more people-oriented as a result of Corona Covid 19, it could be a bit nicer, and less wasteful world to inhabit.

The U.S. has a way of looking rather narrowly at the world and seeing itself not only as the Center of Everything, but as a bit of an island. (An example which comes to mind to me, as a Canadian, is how most American publications will refer to American records as the only ones… when they speak of “best-selling albums of all-time” for instance, they almost invariably are referring only to U.S. figures, ignoring the ones sold to the other 6.7 billion people elsewhere) If people come to look outwards a bit more, and see themselves as part of a global community besides just being a part of their own country, we might benefit. That of course is true of other countries as well, although I think that mentality is most applicable to the United States.

But the U.S. isn’t the only country which will hopefully go about things a bit differently in the future. It might be politically incorrect so say, but it’s true nonetheless that China needs to change the way of some of its people. I know, many think it hypocritical to say we can eat cows or pigs but others shouldn’t eat other mammals, but there’s a reason people don’t normally eat bats, cats or rats. Corona virus came out of a “wet market” in Wuhan, somehow making the jump from infected bats there to local people to wardrobe consultants for Law & Order SVU across the Pacific in a matter of about three months. These markets not only treat animals inhumanely, they crowd together any number of exotic species in close, and unsanitary conditions, proving a nice little petri dish for viral experiments. Corona came from there; SARS and the Swine Flu from similar situations in China earlier this century. Time for bats and wildcats to be left to the wilderness and the animals we choose to consume to come from farms which meet certain health standards, in Wuhan just as much as Wisconsin.

Last but not least, let’s hope we can all gain even a wee bit of a new set of priorities and appreciation for things we can take for granted. In the city I’m in, the large public park near me is closed down – presumably because the virus could infect kids playground equipment or a drinking fountain. It’s rather a drag. Maybe when things go back to “normal” , people will appreciate that park and walking through it a little more. And maybe we’ll rediscover the simple joys of things like walking around the parks enjoying the singing birds and blooming flowers; like doing arts and crafts or playing Clue with the family. Getting to appreciate what we have now, and those we have in our lives, a bit more. That wouldn’t make the current pandemic a good thing, but it sure could mean some good might eventually come from it.

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 2

Wuhan, it turns out is a city that’s the same size as New York. Yet it’s only the ninth biggest city in China. The U.S. has one city (the Big Apple) with more than five million residents; China, 19 of them. Which along with it being about 5000 miles removed from the nearest port on our shore, explains why three months ago most of us had never heard of it. Until, that is, people who shopped in a “wet meat” market started getting sick, and in some cases dying with what originally seemed to be a weird pneumonia.

That was around Christmas time, but due to both the Chinese government’s secrecy and our own fascination with efforts to impeach the president and all those TV singers wearing a mask, we didn’t really begin to hear about the Corona Virus, or Covid 19, until about a month later.

The first news reports seemed bad, but also seemed almost irrelevant to us here. Yes, thousands were sick there but not here and China, seemingly to their credit looked like they had gone to lengths to contain it. It was downright bizarre to watch news reports from China – not even just Wuhan, but other major cities – and see huge modern expressways into skyscraper-sprouting skylines completely deserted; see reporters talking in malls bigger and shinier than ours which were modern, gleaming … and empty.

Then somehow, Iran became infected. Then Italy. People got worried. Japan shut down their whole school system for a month, despite not reporting many cases. Italy quarantined the whole northern half of their land. Then a couple dozen people contracted it on a cruise ship off the California coast and the president didn’t want to allow it to dock. All for a disease which we initially were told was nothing worse than the flu, which we already have over here and kills thousands of people a year, and for which we do nothing other than suggest people get an annual shot that may or may not help prevent it. It made very little sense.

It really seemed like it wasn’t our problem until very recently. That’s the striking thing – how quickly our world has changed. Not as fast as if a jet had flown into a building, but quickly nonetheless. And the impact might be just as resonating.

The first sign things were really haywire was only about two weeks back, when the NBA suddenly suspended their season, only a couple of weeks short of beginning their playoffs. Hours after that announcement, we found one Utah player had the illness. Then two. Then four New York ones. I was dumbfounded when I read that news before going to bed that night, less than two weeks back now. Personally, I don’t care for basketball, so it mattered little at all to me, but it was shocking because it matters to millions of people, and generates hundreds of millions, billions even, of dollars. You don’t just erase dozens of games (many with 18000 or so tickets pre-sold for them) at a drop of the hat. Within 24 hours, the NHL had followed suit and the writing was on the wall for baseball which was ramping up to full speed about a week and a half away from opening the regular season. A day or two later, MLB had stopped all spring training games and delayed the opening of the season to who knows when. That’s when it started to become a bit of a real annoyance to me… and people began to panic.

Fast forward only about three days from there and we get to two Saturdays back. By now, the U.S was up to a few thousand known cases, and about 11 or so fatalities, mainly in one old age home in the Seattle area. It seemed alarming, but still entirely controllable. Not to the masses though.

I ventured out to one of the larger mid-town supermarkets that Saturday night and left basically empty handed. Entire aisles had been cleaned out as if a Biblical plague of locusts had descended. There was not one roll of toilet paper to be found, nor paper towel. Only a handful of loaves of bread remained in the 40-foot aisle, and those were mostly those oddball “organic, gluten-free, quinoa with fig bits” loaves that sell for about $6. Or actually, don’t sell. Most of the canned goods were gone. The next afternoon at Walmart, more of the same. No milk or eggs either. And that’s about when the craziness really set in.

We know a couple in Austin who weren’t feeling well. We see them about once a year. Somehow, communications lines got crossed and there was a rumor they had Corona Virus. The Kiddo here told someone at her workplace that and the boss jetted in like a 747 into an office tower and told her to leave immediately and not set foot back in the store until she’d been tested and could prove she was corona-negative. This for a teen girl who was showing no symptoms.

Her mom and I kind of rolled our eyes and sighed, and said well, fine if that’s what they say we’d better take you to a hospital and have you tested. Mother phoned both of the large regional hospitals only to be told they had no tests available. On Monday we found that there was testing in a city 80 miles away… but you had to have symptoms and be referred by a doctor. We began to realize why the current administration was being raked over the coals for not handling this crisis well. Not handling it at all actually.

The kiddo tried to explain that to her manager, and the latter reluctantly let her come back to work in the store which had by then cut its hours. All a moot point now as that retailer has shut all of its doors until some time in April at best.

Well you know the rest, because it seems like whether you’re in Tennessee or Florida or north of the border in Ontario, it’s the same. We’ve had a week where people are panicking, lines form around the block two, three hours before supermarkets open in the morning with people eager to have a chance at getting a 6-pack of toilet paper or case of bottled water and by mid-day, most shelves in the food and cleaning aisles are empty as if the Grinch had just gone through leaving one crumb too small for even a mouse.

On the plus side, city streets which are usually gridlocked at 4 PM are a nice easy glide and the gas to do so cheaper than it’s been for years, because people have nowhere to go. Businesses are shut down, you can’t go out to eat or watch the game (which isn’t taking place anyway!) , telecommuting has in 10 days gone from the unlikely and a perq of the few to the way offices do business now.

My sweetie works in a large, modern office for a large local company. She handles customer inquiries and complaints, quite well I must say. Flu swept through it last winter, the company seemed not to notice. Corona though, is a different breed of virus. By mid-week last week, they were asking workers to work from home. Today she started doing so, for the forseeable future. The company even sent home one of her large monitors so she could use a bigger screen than her laptop offers. So far, it’s going well though she already misses some of her “team members” and her bigger, liftable desk there. Which is understandable to me, as I’ve found that the thing that makes most jobs mentally worthwhile is the co-workers you interact with and the friendships you make there.

Of course, it’s not just her, nor just offices. Can you imagine being an NBC exec and suggesting three months ago, “I think we should prepare for when Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker have to do the Today Show from their own living rooms and our nighttime talk show guests will be being interviewed remotely via Skype?” The company would’ve shown you the door and stuffed a map to the local mental hospital in your pocket on the way out. Yet that too is the new reality.

It’s scary. The illness seems random. Some have it and barely feel “under the weather”, others get it and are in the ground a week later. That’s scary. In Italy and elsewhere, it seems to explode like a bomb after the public makes real efforts to do what we’re told – wash hands, stay indoors and so on. That’s scary. Every day that passes makes it less likely fans like me will be watching baseball this year, or like my dad, the Olympics this summer and that’s … well, not exactly scary, but mind-blowing nevertheless.

Eventually, we’ll go back to normal. But what will the new “normal” be? It might be bad but maybe, just maybe it won’t be that scary….

One Person, One Vote – Is That Rocket Science?

My old homeland recently had an election, and to little surprise, Justin Trudeau won re-election and will continue to be the Prime Minister of Canada. Although perhaps there was a little surprise at that. Trudeau’s governing had been marred by political scandals as well as personal ones related to his fondness for dressing in Halloween costumes using “blackface” makeup. Debatable as to a costume choice, but certainly not a good look for a politician leading a party which bases most of its policy on social inclusiveness and tolerant multiculturalism.

Perhaps a little surprising as well, the fact that although he and his Liberal party won the election, Andrew Scheer and the Conservative party got more votes than the Liberals. The Liberals scored 5 916 000 votes, or 33.1% of the total. Scheer’s Conservatives, 6 155 000, or 34.4%. And no, your math skills haven’t taken a hit since you left school – the two don’t add up to 100% since Canada has a couple of other popular parties plus a regional one of some account in Quebec.

Of course, the pattern is familiar to Americans. Let’s remember that in 2016, Donald Trump actually was voted for by 62 980 000 or so folk; Hillary Clinton by 65 845 000. Yet we know who got to go to the White House.

It seems weird at first that if the popular vote was what counted, “liberal” Canada would have a right-wing, Conservative leader and to the south, the “conservative, Christian” USA would be being led by a liberal woman. That’s a bit of a simplification though, as in Canada, the left-wing part of the populace has three parties to choose from, the Clinton-esque Liberals, the Bernie Sanders-inspiring NDP and the AOC-style Green Party. Together, they represented nearly 60% of the Canucks. Still though, it somehow seems wrong, doesn’t it?

The difference is caused by the route to leadership in both countries. In the U.S., the Electoral College is the way the prez gets chosen, and that’s no exact representation of voter preference for two reasons. First, states are disproportionately represented. Even the most sparsely populated states have 3 of the 538. Wyoming, for example, gets 3 Electoral College votes, with its population of 570 000 (about the same number as the city of Memphis). that’s one vote for every 190 000 residents. Fiery California, meanwhile hosts 39.75 million people, but has just 55 votes, or one per 723 000 residents. Hardly fair that, if we believe in “one person, one vote.”

Secondly, the states by and large give their votes in an all-or-nothing fashion to the winner. It makes no difference if the candidate scores 50.1% of the ballots or 99%… they’re going to get all the Electoral votes. Candidates who lose some of the very closely-contested “Swing states” by a narrow margin, but win their states by a landslide get discriminated against. Result – twice this century already, a President not chosen by the majority of American voters.

Canada’s system is not that different. There are some 338 “ridings” and each one “votes” for the Prime Minister based on whoever won the local vote. Again, some politicans (in this year’s case the Conservatives) win some seats by a landslide and lose others by the narrowest margins, but like the American system, a win is a win is a win. Even when it means the candidate with fewer votes gets elected.

I’m not a political science student but it seems to me that a system which results in the candidate with fewer people voting for him or her winning rather regularly is not a good, working system! So I offer a simple solution. America, let the candidate with the most votes be President. It doesn’t matter if he wins Florida by 100 votes and there are hanging chads, or if 88% of Wyomingians pick him, if the grand total doesn’t favor him, he’s not president.

Canada, similar suggestion. First off, have a separate box to fill in for “Prime Minister”. Right now, it’s done by a rather convoluted system where you vote for your local candidate and if they win their riding, they in turn vote for their party leader to be the boss. Vote for your local parliamentarian, yes, but also vote separately for PM. And have the one with most votes win. Simple.

And while we’re at it, another common sense suggestion. Isn’t a politician’s loyalty supposed to be to first, their country, then the local constituents and only after that the party? Seems like much of the time, those priorities are reversed these days, with leaders (and here we’re not only referring to Mr. Trump although it certainly is applicable to him) seemingly bullying their underlings in Congress/Parliament to vote according to the Head Honcho’s wishes, not their own beliefs or constituent choices. Could this not be fixed by having votes on important issues – raising taxes, imposing tariffs, changing laws, impeaching presidents and so on – be done by hidden ballot? Give the politicians a ballot with a Yes/No box to fill in at their seats and have them folded up and put into boxes. Or for the millennials out there, have them swipe their phones left for “yay”, right for “nay.”

This isn’t about Donald Trump, nor Justin Trudeau, specifically. It’s about a system which is supposed to be democracy hardly recognizing the will of the people anymore.