The Neighbors

It was a wild time on our quiet street yesterday morning. I work from a desk in the bedroom, facing the street… a normally rather quiet suburban street. I glance out when I hear a vehicle go by, or to look at birds in the garden. The window affords a decent view of the feeder, which I filled for the first time this “winter” early yesterday after a strong cold front blew by, today a Mockingbird became the first to discover the new food source.

Most of the time not much happens on the street, which made yesterday’s incident a bit more bizarre. I happened to look out to see a black pickup, which looked familiar, going by backwards, at a good clip, with the driver’s door open. Our neighbor was running after it yelling, as the truck clipped our garbage can and carried on down the road, seemingly heading in reverse towards a couple of cars. For a moment I thought it was some crazy person aiming at other things with the truck. Or maybe a domestic fight? Joyriding juvenile thieves? I peered down the road and saw the truck stopped against the curb… and noticed debris by our car, also out front.

I went out, and was semi-relieved to see the “debris” was in fact a baseball cap and glasses, with some garbage nearby. I picked up the cap and glasses and, seeing my neighbor standing, staring, appearing befuddled on his lawn, took it over to him. “This yours?” He said yes, and thanked me. “What happened?’

Well, it turned out he was driving away in this truck – one his son uses normally – and forgot to tell his wife something. She was in their driveway or yard. So, he (apparently) started backing up to yell something at her like “close the garage door!”. He fell out of the truck. Ooops. The truck kept going in reverse, scraped our garbage bin and took out his own, strewing trash far and wide. Oops more! Then it crashed into a parked car on the road before coming to a stop. Ooops triple. “They already don’t like us,” his wife told me. “This isn’t going to help,” I replied, stating the bleeding obvious.

I checked to make sure he was ok, and decided to be neighborly and help him pick up the garbage. Police arrived, and the young cop who’s first on the scene was friendly in a downhome sort of way, taking everything in stride as he took down the statement from the neighbor. An older, more stern cop drove up later and walked around saying nothing. The police asked if he’d tried to move his truck, which he hadn’t; they told him to and it made a screeching sound when he slowly pulled it ahead. It had done some nasty damage to the parked sedan. I was relieved I didn’t see the actual impact, so when I got a chance to ask if I could scram, the cop ascertained I hadn’t seen the actual crash, thanked me and waved me off. I wished him a good day and got back to my day.

The neighbor in question is a guy about my age. We’ll call him Pickup Guy. He’s married to a woman who rarely comes outside, with a grown son, I think, who leaves his dog with them. A big brown dog that always barks up a storm when she sees me, which scared the be-jeezus out of me the first couple of times, but by now just prompts me to call the dog’s name and say “You know me!” It quiets down and wags it tail. Pickup Guy is largely retired except for a part-time delivery job, but does work in his garage, which faces our driveway. One time he knocked on the door, hoping to find my brother-in-law, but me being the only one home, asked if I could help him for a minute. I helped him move a storage shelf in his garage and chatted a bit; he showed me some old antique tools he restored. He usually has on classic rock in the garage; I like the music pouring out of it when I take garbage or recycling out to the containers. I say “Hi” when I see him in there and he asks how I’m doing. Not exactly a close friend, but a decent chap. A neighbor. I would try to help him, and I figure he’d do the same for me if I needed it.

In the last house we lived at, we had various neighbors. There was an elderly couple next door. We’ll call them the Whitehairs. My sweetie initially didn’t like The Whitehairs. She said the husband seemed a bit snooty or short-tempered. After awhile, when I was mowing the lawn or carrying in groceries, I saw them enough to get to talk to them a bit. The husband was a little taciturn, but seemed a decent man, a veteran… I wouldn’t be surprised if from WWII, but I suppose more likely Korea. His wife was an adorable little granny type. Even my sweetie became friends with her as, after I’d broken the ice, she’d talk to us both if she saw us, telling us of her youth and her family out of state and the various health concerns she and Mr. Whitehair had. They both had their share of health problems and they told us they’d be sad to see us go and to come back and visit. I wanted to do that, but alas, only a couple of months after we moved, their cars disappeared and new people and cars were there whenever I went by. I hope perhaps they found a nice retirement home or such, but fear perhaps a worse fate befell them.

Across the street, kitty corner from us, was a bickering couple a bit older than us. The husband was a George Jefferson-like little character who was prone to knocking on our door late at night, asking if he could borrow some money. Sometimes for smokes, sometimes for a prescription for his wife. Sometimes we’d help him out, sometimes we wouldn’t, sometimes we simply couldn’t because we weren’t prone to keeping much cash at home. One time he managed to carry a large flatscreen TV across the road around midnight and tried to persuade me to buy it. My love had a fit when she came out of the shower and found this 50 or 60 inch TV half inside our living room and me debating with George Jefferson, explaining that we didn’t need another TV right now and besides, I didn’t have $50 or $60 on me anyway. We made him carry it back home; he wanted me to bring it back to him (on account of his bad back) but I wasn’t wanting to be the guy carrying a 50” TV of dubious origins across a busy road at midnight! One time he asked me to help him with something with his garage (what is it with Texas guys and working in their garage?) and he showed me a bulky handgun he kept in there, explaining that was why he wasn’t afraid of break-ins. He wasn’t my favorite neighbor, but yet, he seemed harmless and always seemed to have a smile for us and a wave as we drove out.

Neighbors. I don’t think I would have ever talked to any of these people had I not lived in proximity to them. The George Jefferson guy was a different race, had an accent I found difficult to decipher when he got excited and played music that I certainly didn’t like, loud enough for us to hear across the street at times. The Whitehairs seemed stern and stand-offish at first and it was suspected they might have been the people who called the city (before I was on the scene) and reported our unduly long grass in the yard prompting a visit from a bylaw officer. Pickup Guy had a sticker in his regular truck supporting a political candidate I would never support nor have a good word for. Yet they all were good enough people, it turns out. And likewise, they probably wouldn’t have had interest in talking to a middle-aged liberal kind of alternative rock music-loving, bird-feeding guy, until I moved in.

It goes to show something. I’m not quite sure what, but I think Ralph Nader had it right years ago. He suggested “when strangers start acting like neighbor, communities are reinvigorated.” Our country might be a lot better off if we all forgot stereotypes and sat down and chatted a little with the people next door…whomever they might be. A certain book does tell us to “love thy neighbor”, after all.

Thankful Thursday XXXIII – Benevolent Celebrities

As many of you know, I also do a daily music blog. Recently while writing pieces I featured Janis Ian. Janis is a singer who had one big hit in the 1970s, “At Seventeen” and has periodically recorded since as well as written a few books. But an interesting sidebar to her story is that she also runs a charity called the Pearl Foundation that raises money for scholarship for adults returning to school. I think that’s pretty great and noble. To date, with her help it’s given out over a million dollars to help further the education of people who might not otherwise be able to go back to school to better their lives. The same week I looked at Farm Aid, a charity designed to help out struggling small family farmers around the country. It was started as a one-off rock concert in 1985 set up by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Little did they know back then that it would still be an ongoing event, and they’d all still be performing almost every year and the charity a round-the-calendar organization assisting farmers and lobbying for their interests. Again, a very worthy cause. So, this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for celebrities who use their fame (and quite often money) to help others through such events and organizations.

There’s no shortage of them of course. Elton John has worked extensively for various organizations helping AIDS patients. Peter Gabriel brought Amnesty International onto the radar for millions of his fans by talking about them and having booths of theirs set up at his concerts. And of course, it’s by no means limited to the music world. Actor Gary Sinise became a hard-working advocate for disabled veterans after playing one in Forrest Gump and being contacted by many real-life people with stories like his fictitious Lt. Dan. Reese Witherspoon has been involved with a number of organizations promoting improving childrens’ lives in the Third World, helping battered women and encouraging reading. And the list goes on and on.

It’s often said we idolize our entertainers far too much. Perhaps true. Also true is that the bar keeps being lowered for what it takes to be considered a “star”. These days a “leaked” sex tape or filming yourself walking around dollar stores pointing out new items with a little bit of panache are sometimes all it takes. We can debate what this means for society in general, but while it is the case, I say more power to those who find that rising star and use the enormous pulpit they have to influence their fans and make the world a little better.

Thankful Thursday XXVI – Parks

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for city parks.

I’ve often said that the single greatest thing about New York City isn’t the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Broadway plays nor the shopping experiences. It’s Central Park. We should all give kudos to the city fathers who had the incredible foresight years ago to set aside 843 acres of parkland in the middle of the city for the residents to enjoy in so many ways. It’s probably the chief reason the downtown of a crowded city of over 8 million people is quite livable.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, in a house which backed onto a large park. It was great, even if in summer the powerful lights on the tennis courts (about 40 feet behind our fence) did make sleeping before 11PM a bit of a challenge at times. It had a wooden fort for us kids to play on, tennis courts for the adults (which were commandeered for ‘street hockey’ in winter) , swings, and acres of grassy field sloping down from a public school at the end of the street. Tobogganing in winter? Check? Soccer games in summer? Check. Flying a kite in windy weather? Check. Old Scotsman practicing bagpipes at sunset? Check, much to my (and some other nearby residents) chagrin. No matter what the season, the park was in use by people from blocks around. No wonder a study in Boulder, Colorado showed that house prices increase by over $4 per foot the closer they are to a park. Put another way, a house beside a city park is worth about $20 000 more than the identical one a mile away.

Parks provide actual physical benefits to the cities they’re in. They filter out rainwater and can reduce flooding. The grassy, or especially treed ones actually cool down summer heat. A large park can reduce the temperature by up to five degrees in summer compared to nearby areas. (Urban “heat islands” tend to cause cities to be much hotter than nearby rural areas because of the amount of pavement radiating heat back up from the ground.) They add oxygen, so, if extensive enough, they can reduce air pollution. And often times, they’re homes to wildlife. But even those things are really just side-effects. The real glory of parks is the psychological and social.

Parks offer residents places to congregate and to exercise safely. I would guess many of the joggers in Central Park would be much more sedentary if they were having to job between couriers and taxis down 42nd Street. Playing hockey on a snowy tennis court? Fine. Playing hockey on a busy city street? Not looked at as fondly by drivers or even police. They keep us in shape. But the real thing… they calm us down. They make us happy. A Finnish study showed even 10 minutes in a city park “tangibly reduces stress” in most people. Imagine what a “Saturday in the Park” would do for our mental state.

So here’s to parks…and the cities smart enough to maintain and promote them.

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.

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