November Musings

Like so many of you, I have had a rather rough start to my November.  On Tuesday November 8th our neighbours to the south have elected, by a razor thin margin, a president who I believe is the most dangerous man to be given the White House.  In the days that followed, I watched in horror as social media became replete with first hand accounts of women and minorities in the United States being subjected to hate speech and acts of violence.  As the president elect remained silent, making no effort whatsoever to denounce these senseless acts, I witnessed the people of America take to the streets to express their outrage, as is their right.  America came to the startling realization that they have just elected a racist, misogynistic, bigoted dictator to lead the most powerful nation in the world.  A man who built a campaign based on hate and fear.  As the polls reported in one by one on Tuesday night, I felt physically ill as the reality began to set in.  The people who voted for this man were unhappy with the establishment, which is fair enough.  They felt disenfranchised, ignored, that they were not even part of the conversation.  That would make anyone feel hurt, abandoned, even angry.  I’m sure they pay their taxes just like everyone else, (even if the person they voted for doesn’t,) so it’s natural for them to question the authority that exists.  But on the flip side, considering that almost half of the American public who were eligible to vote didn’t even show up to cast a ballot, what really happened here?  Is the degree of apathy among us so great that during this, one of the most critical presidential elections of our time, indeed, what will no doubt be considered a turning point in history, that so many people didn’t see the value of making their voice heard?  Well folks, if not being heard is what you wanted, I promise you, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.

But that’s little comfort to those who did turn out to vote, only to have all of their hopes and dreams for the future of their nation crushed.  My twitter feed was filled with heartbroken messages of fear and helplessness, as my American friends asked repeatedly,  How could this happen?  My heart was also broken.  I reached out to my friends south of the border and reminded them they were not alone. I even offered up my sofa. And I continued to watch as the tone of social media turned exceedingly dark.  The outrage was on both sides, with the alt right subjecting us all to their messages of hate, misogyny and bigotry, and naturally these were met with the backlash from the left.  But trickled throughout the barrage of two way hatred and anger, there were also messages of love and hope.  People reminding everyone to look after themselves, reach out to one another, gather with the ones they love, and amongst the writers who grace twitter with their presence, the message was very clear:  Keep writing.  The world needs our stories now more than ever.  I myself felt all the usual emotions, confusion, fear, anger, helplessness.  But through all of that I was reminded of one very important fact:  I still have a voice, and no one can take that away from me.

As I write this, it is November 11th, 2016.  Remembrance day.  Ever since childhood this day has been important to me.  A  day when we reflect and honour those whose sacrifice paved the way for the life and freedom that we now enjoy.  We are free to live our lives however we want as long as we are not hurting anyone else.  We are free to make our own choices.  To make mistakes and learn from them, to be with whoever we want to, to express our feelings and opinions, even if that means openly disagreeing with the powers that be.  Or at least, we could.

I have spent this Remembrance Day in mostly the same way I have spent them in the past.  I privately observed two minutes of silence at 11:00am, and I took that time to allow my thoughts and feelings to dwell on those people we lost, and those who returned, many of whom are still to this day paying a terrible price for our freedom in the form of PTSD.  Imagine putting such a premium on freedom and truth that you are willing to suffer and die to preserve it.  Putting the needs of countless strangers you will never know so far ahead of your own that you would literally put yourself in the path of a bullet.  I can’t say that I would be so brave, and as such, I have no words to express the profound respect, admiration, and love I have for those that are.  Because of these courageous men and women, I have all the comforts and privileges I have taken for granted my entire life, so yes, I think I can find at least two lousy minutes once a year to allow myself to think of them and nothing else.

After observing two minutes of silence in quiet reflection, I turned to news coverage of the Remembrance Day ceremony that was taking place in Ottawa.  It played out as you would expect, with the Prime Minister and several dignitaries and ambassadors laying wreaths and paying their respects.  But what hit me hardest of all was when the news cameras turned to the faces of the veterans.  The sadness, the grief, and the profound sense of loss as they reflect on the horrors they experienced as they fought for their country.  For all of us.  But on this particular Remembrance Day, more so than in years past, I found myself wondering if they were as afraid as the rest of us?  That the freedom they fought so hard to protect is in more peril now than ever before?  Are they reminded of the tyrant they helped to liberate the world from so many years ago?  What if after all their efforts, and so much sacrifice, that we’re about to throw it all away for no good reason other than almost half of the people couldn’t be bothered to do their civic duty and cast a ballot? Is that really what the world has come to?  Or did this need to happen to serve as a grim reminder to people of just how bad things can get when we allow ourselves to become apathetic?

We have a choice going forward.  We can take the easy path, and react to the hate with more hate, which solves nothing.  Or we can respond to the fear, rather than react to it, and allow it to mobilize us.  To motivate us.  To be better, to do better, to express kindness, love and tolerance for one another. To be true to ourselves and our ideals.  To open the lines of communication, rather than close them.  A difference of opinion does not have to lead to division, rather it is an opportunity for greater understanding.  Instead of criticizing those who don’t share our views, why aren’t we making more of an effort to listen?  The absence of communication only leads to misunderstanding, assumptions and ultimately, anger.  This accomplishes nothing beyond driving people apart.  But this is particularly dangerous now, as we are at a critical point in our collective history.  If we as a species are to survive the next century, we have to start working together to lessen the divide that exists between us. It is truly remarkable what we as human beings are capable of achieving together if we only give ourselves the chance.

So what now?  Keep your loved ones close, gather your friends and family, remind them they’re not alone.  In this present climate of anger and hate, the only weapon the rest of us have in our arsenal is love.  Kindness, hope, charity, tolerance, understanding, and truth.  Reaching out to those we love is the first step, but we need to go beyond that.  It is more important than ever that we work to provide a voice for those who have none.   Complacency is easy, but it is glaringly obvious that the time for complacency is over. We no longer have the luxury of burying our heads in the sand on the basis that it’s not our problem, because quite frankly it is our problem. It’s everyone’s problem.  But aside from compassion and understanding, we also need truth. Silence is as dangerous as censorship.  Freedom of expression is among our most basic of human rights, and it is critical that we let no one take that away from us.  Write, speak, protest, make your voice heard.  The pen is mightier than the sword.  Wield it wisely and without fear.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget what our brave service men and women fought and died for.  They fought for freedom from tyranny and oppression, but also freedom to experience joy.  Take the time to stop and watch the sun coming up over the horizon, sing in the shower, dance to jazz music while your eggs scramble.  Do whatever makes you feel alive.  And while you’re at it, be sure to laugh out loud.  I can think of no better way to fight tyranny.  Demagogues thrive on the suffering of others.  Don’t give it to them.

And to my American friends, you are not alone.  Just say the word and I’ll put the kettle on.

The Brown Car

When I was my much younger self, somewhere between the ages of five and nine, I remember my mother sitting me down to have a serious talk with me.  When you’re a child of that age, a “serious talk” sticks out in your mind.  She warned me about a brown car.  She told me the police were telling everyone to warn their children to stay away from a man driving a brown car.  Now while I may have been too young to learn the word pedohile, I was still able to grasp the gist of the conversation.  This man liked children, but not in a good way.  I remember that conversation as being the first time I was aware that evil existed in the real world, and not just in make believe.

My friends at school asked me if I knew about the brown car.  We were all afraid, even if some of us were not entirely sure why.  I told my friends that I believed the man driving the brown car would kidnap children.  What he did afterwards I had no idea, but like any kid I had a pretty vivid imagination and as such managed to concoct some frightening possibilities.

For the longest time after that conversation with my mother, I lived in fear of brown cars.  Every time I spotted one, I was careful to keep my distance.  I recall one such instance when I spotted a brown car driving down the street towards me.  As it slowed down, my heart pounded in my chest and I had a sharp metallic taste in my mouth.  It was the first time I literally tasted fear.  I turned and ran, and as I looked over my shoulder, I could see the driver had slowed down to talk briefly with the driver of another car who was heading in the opposite direction.  After their brief conversation, they shared a laugh and drove off.  And no, the brown car did not come speeding after me.

When I reflect on my childhood experiences and perceptions, it becomes obvious why the king of horror himself, Stephen King, frequently has kids in his stories.  Being a kid is a scary business.  At times it’s downright dangerous.  Fairy tales are another perfect example, from Disney films to the Brothers Grimm.  So called “children’s stories” are the stuff of nightmares.  As Pat Benetar once famously sang, “Hell is for children.”  But are those stories really there just to scare kids?  Or to prepare them for the big bad world out there?  As much as our parents told us when we were little that monsters didn’t exist, perhaps the reason we remained so frightened of them was because deep down we knew that they were real.  They walk among us.  And some of them drive brown cars.

The Serial Killer Next Door

Years ago when I was still living and working in downtown Halifax, I was lucky enough to become good friends with a young married couple who were also work colleagues.  In fact, Dennis* and Stephanie* lived in the same apartment building as I did, and by all appearances they were the perfect young couple.  Whenever I encountered them on the way to work or in the elevator they were always holding hands and smiling, obviously very much in love with each other.  As time went on the three of us began spending time together outside of work.  We would head out for dinner and play pool on the weekends, and whenever I came home with a load of groceries they made sure that a cart was waiting for me downstairs by the elevator so I could get everything up to my apartment in one go.  We went to the staff Christmas party together, and over the holidays one year they graciously agreed to look after my cats so I could spend the holidays with my family.  Everyone who knew them all thought the same thing: they were great people.  Trustworthy, friendly, and always willing to help out their friends and neighbours.

As the years went on, I changed jobs and moved out of the downtown core.  I lost touch with Dennis and Stephanie as our paths no longer crossed, either at work or at home.  I honestly never gave it much thought, until a few years ago while I was browsing through my newsfeed on twitter and a headline caught my eye.  I paused and scrolled back, taking a closer look.  Dennis’s name was in the headline.  Accused of murdering a sex trade worker.  I opened the article, assuming it must be someone else who happened to have the same first and last name, but was instead horrified to see a picture of my former colleague and neighbour being led into court in handcuffs.  My mind was racing.  Could this possibly be the same guy I worked with?  The same guy I hung out with, along with his wife of course?  The same guy who if I had found myself downtown leaving a bar, three sheets to the wind and unable to find my friends, (hey, I was in my 20s, it’s what we did) and bumped into him I would have trusted him without question? I read the rest of the article.  As it turned out, not only did he confess to murdering said sex worker, but he also attempted to kill another woman in the sex trade in the same manner, however she was able to escape.  My mouth went dry as my head was spinning with what I just learned.  I thought back to that Christmas many years ago when I gave him and Stephanie the keys to my apartment to feed my cats.  Did I really just give the keys of my apartment to a serial killer?  

Upon such a revelation, I had the kind of reaction one would expect.  Shock.  Disbelief.  Which then led to me trying to figure out exactly what went wrong between the time I knew Dennis and Stephanie and the night he killed another human being.  Of course I have absolutely no way whatsoever of knowing what would make Dennis, or anyone for that matter do such a thing, but when it hits this close to home you can’t help but wonder.  Were there signs?  Did I miss them?  I have thought about this long and hard and I can safely say I witnessed nothing during that time to indicate that he would go on to do the things he did.

Since then, I find my thoughts dwelling on Stephanie.  Based on the details of the court proceedings that I read they had separated before any of this happened, in fact Dennis had since remarried.  At first I thought it wasn’t a surprise, I couldn’t imagine Stephanie would be the kind of person to stay with a man who was capable of murder.  But then I swiftly reminded myself that I couldn’t imagine Dennis would become a serial killer either.  Which then leads to the inevitable question in all of this:  do we ever really know anybody?
*Names have been changed to protect the individuals involved.  Except myself, of course.

An Ocean of Junkmail

imageDoes anyone here remember the last time they sent or received a handwritten letter in the mail?  Nope.  Neither do I.  I doubt many employees of Canada Post recall those days too vividly either, hence the end of door to door mail delivery.  And while it is true that with the invention of email and instant messenger there is little need for paper communication, (even Revenue Canada is insisting that people give them their bank account information to set up direct deposit rather than send cheques) my mailbox still manages to get itself rather clogged up.  But it’s not with actual mail, or at least, not what I consider mail.  At least twice a week when I insert my key and open the slot I find myself pulling out fistfuls of grocery store flyers, political campaign pamphlets, and pizza menus.  But rarely if ever is there any mail that’s addressed to me with my name and address on it.  The only times I typically see that is around Christmas or my birthday when my Dad sends me a card.  Ok, my insurance company generously gifts me with paper mail once every year, but aside from that, I spend more time putting the contents of my mailbox into the blue bin that my superintendent graciously placed in the mailroom than I do reading any of the mail that I receive.

As for the blue bin, on most days it is full to the top, a colourful sea of flyers, menus and circulars that frankly most of us don’t even bother reading.  One time several years ago, my previous superintendent supplied us with premade labels to stick on the insides of our mailboxes that simply read “no flyers please”.  Most if not all of us stuck them on in the hopes of seeing an end to the mountains of junk mail that were destined for the jaws of the recycling facility, but few of us were surprised when our letter carrier chose to ignore them and proceeded to stuff the unwanted documents into our boxes anyway.

In fact for many of us, myself included, even our bills are delivered to us electronically.  And as for the grocery store specials, those can be retrieved online as well. I even have my local supermarket email them to me.  But despite that I still get their paper flyer stuffed into my mailbox every week without fail.  Why?  Utilities, telecommunications companies, and even banks are encouraging their clientele to switch to paperless billing in an effort to reduce costs as well as the impact on the environment.  Has Canada Post been reduced to junk mail carriers?  I guess my question is, will we ever see an end to the unwanted junk mail?  And an even scarier question might be, if it does come to an end, what will become of Canada Post?  Of course there will always be parcels to deliver, however most of the time I order a big ticket item the merchant typically ships it via courier.  Books being relatively inexpensive are often shipped by Canada Post, however even those sales are down as consumers are moving away from print media in favour of ereaders.

If the way we do business, shop, communicate and retrieve content has changed so much, why hasn’t this aspect of it changed?  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Charitable Guilt

“Excuse me, would you like to support…”  How many times have we heard those words when entering or leaving the grocery store, usually on a weekend?  It does seem that numerous charities and organizations cleverly pick the busiest stores at the busiest times to do a bit of fundraising.  But I find myself wondering just how well they do with that approach in the age of paying by plastic.  Not to mention the current economic reality of the times.  With more and more Canadians carrying record levels of household debt it gets harder for them to open their pockets to help those in need, mostly because, well, a lot of us find ourselves in need, too.  But even for those of us with a little money to spare, it does get a little awkward having to repeatedly say that as much as we love to help, we’re just not in the habit of carrying cash.  And as true as that statement may be, I still feel uncomfortable when confronted with the situation.  I feel like a kid making a lame excuse to their teacher as to why they showed up for school without their homework completed.  I don’t suppose saying the cat ate my wallet would do, would it?  And let’s not forget the guilt.  The gnawing feeling as you walk back to your car with your grocery bags as you remind yourself that even though it may be a struggle just to pay the bills and buy food, really you should be trying to help out those who are worse off.  Never mind that the wealthy can easily afford charitable donations far more than the rest of us, we are still conditioned to think that those of us who are gainfully employed, regardless of our income, are lucky just to have a job and should be happy to spread the “wealth” around.

I was thinking of this recently when I was heading out to pick up a specific item at a local department store.  As I was pulling up I noticed a table set up outside.  Of course there was a large sign in front of it displaying the name of the organization that was looking for donations.  And you know what I did?  Yep.  You guessed it.  I kept on driving and went to another store to make my purchase.  Not because I didn’t want to help, but because once again I only had my debit card  and was frankly not in the mood to give an embarrassed smile as I stammered my usual response, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me…” before scampering away making sure to avoid any and all eye contact during the entire exchange.

What are your thoughts?  Do you find yourself making sure you have cash on hand just in case?  Or do you try to avoid the situation altogether as I did that day?  Or maybe it doesn’t bother you at all?

Precious: A Love Story. Sort of.

 Most of us remember that feeling when we picked up the keys to our first car, started the engine and drove it for the first time.  It’s almost like your first romance, you can’t stop thinking about them, you can’t stop talking about them, and you can’t keep away from them.

It was late June when the love affair with my car began.  She’s a five door hatchback that is the same colour as my hair. I’m a ginger for those who don’t know me personally.  It was a sign: this car and I were meant to be together.  She was indeed The Precious.  The One Kia to Rule Them All.  It was the typical summer romance, Precious and I were inseparable.  One weekend I loaded my scuba gear and took her for a dive.  Well, Precious didn’t actually come on the dive, but she did get me there.  And she very sportingly agreed to allow me to drape my wetsuit over her hood afterwards.  There was no question about it, Precious was my new best friend.  She didn’t even mind when I had to fold the back seats down to accommodate my new bike.  Yeah, Precious was the best thing that happened to me.  It seemed that good times would never end.

But as time went on, the romance started to fade, and who knows? Maybe it was my fault.  Maybe I didn’t give her enough attention and Precious began to feel taken for granted.  But she found clever, albeit expensive ways to keep me interested.  There was the time I discovered on the way to work that the power steering was malfunctioning, leaving me not only $900 poorer, but without wheels for the entire labour day weekend.  And let’s not forget the freezing cold morning in February when she refused to start.  Not only did she empty my wallet of another $500, but she ensured that my plans to head to dance class that night were a bust.

In all fairness, not all of her tactics were quite as extreme.  One evening, as I was driving my friend Kyla back to my place for dinner after dance class I noticed to my horror that the check engine light remained on.  I decided that two could play at this game, and the following morning when I got in the driver’s seat I decided to change tactics.

“Ok Precious, if you don’t turn that light out I’m taking you to the doctor instead of the beach.”

Yep.  You guessed it.  The light turned off.  But I swear to this day I heard her giggling at me.

Everything was going without incident, until just this last spring when I brought Precious in to put on her all season tires.  I’m sure you all remember quite painfully the miserable winter we just had, and so I grit my teeth and booked a front end alignment as well.  MIght as well get it over it.  About a half an hour after I dropped her off, I got a call from the garage.

“Yeah, so there were a couple problems with your front end,” I was informed.  At least

they didn’t say there was something wrong with my rear end.  Short version:  control arm bushing and bearing had to be replaced.  Another $900.

But it wasn’t all bad news at the garage, in fact recently when I dropped her off for her safety inspection, she not only passed it, she aced it.  I was so proud of her I kept her inspection report in the glove compartment.   This really felt like a turning point in our relationship.  Precious and I had some rough times, but we managed to pull through it stronger and things were never better between us.

Recently I awoke to the realisation that I was suddenly out of milk.  And I needed coffee.  Stat.  I grabbed my keys and made for the Precious.  I hit the button on my key fob to open the driver side door.  Nothing.  I tried a couple times.  Still nothing.  No problem.  I manually unlocked it with the key, reminding myself that a lack of power locks really is the epitome of a first world problem.  I put the key in the ignition and turned it.  Nothing.  Not even a click.  I tried again a few times, feeling my mouth suddenly turn dry.  I tried the headlights.  Nothing.  The dash didn’t even so much as flicker.  I gave up, and walked around the corner to fetch some milk, all the while thinking to myself that this was probably going to get expensive.  As I ran through all the possible reasons for this latest malfunction in my mind, I found myself facing the prospect that this might be it.  If this was a repair out of my rather strapped budget it could mean the end of a beautiful, (well, mostly beautiful) relationship.  This might be the day when Precious and I break up.

After much hemming and hawing not to mention some desperately needed caffeine, I called for a jump.  Precious leapt into life.  So far looking like a dead battery, not exactly cheap but not enough to break the bank either.  I drove her to the garage and dropped her off again, asking for a battery check.  Yep.  Dead battery.  And all the belts had to be replaced.  $350.  And it was almost seven pm when I got her back, which meant I missed out on my run. But I had my Precious back.  But as relieved as I was, I was starting to grow weary of Precious’s attempts at getting attention.  She may have looks and charm, but she is also a bit of a drama queen and has a knack for emptying my pockets.  Frankly, I found myself wondering how much longer I would be willing to put up with her games, but as many of you can relate, I was just so relieved to have things go back to normal that I bit my tongue.  And besides, in less than two months she had three visits to the garage.  Surely I wouldn’t be subjected to any more temper tantrums for at least a while.

A couple of days later I climbed into Precious to run an errand.  I closed the door, fastened my seatbelt, and began to organize my belongings on the passenger seat.  Just as I was doing so, Previous lit up the four way flashers and locked the doors.  I sighed, and unlocked my door.  Precious then began sounding the horn.

“Precious, it’s just me,” I growled, stopping the horn with my key fob.

“Thank-you,” I responded through clenched teeth as I backed out of my spot.

“And you can wipe that smirk off your face.”

The Multitasking Myth: A False Economy

Recently while browsing through job postings I was intrigued by the frequency with which the word “multitasking” appeared.  I found myself remembering some well intentioned advice from a former employer who said I should never multitask, as it affects the quality of the work being produced.  Sound advice.  His words reminded me of a conversation my brother relayed to me a long time ago.  My oldest brother, call him Brother One, called Brother Two to tell him about the new video game he purchased over the weekend.  He was so excited about the game, he called while he was in the middle of playing it.

“So what else did you do this weekend?”  Brother Two asked Brother One.

Insert a pause here.

“Uh-huh,” Brother One responded.  You get the picture.

However, as much as companies and managers pay lip service to the evils of

multitasking, they sure still seem to expect it.  For example, I used to work as an English tutor for an overseas company who liked to conduct their sessions online via Skype.  It was the best of both worlds, the client got a one on one session with a native English speaker, and as the tutor I got to work from the comfort of my own home.  I distinctly recall during one session, I posted my notes onto a previous client’s profile.  Shortly thereafter the administrator messaged me asking me not to post notes during another client’s session as they were concerned that my full attention may not be on the current client.  Makes sense.  However, their administrators were in the habit of frequently messaging us during live sessions with the expectation of an immediate response.  But apparently that was ok.

In fact the former employer that discouraged me from multitasking was also the same one who told us to get our teams to learn the skill of talk and type so as to boost productivity.  Less time after the call finishing up notes and work, more time available to take calls.  Staff are expected to build a personal connection with their customers, however they are also expected to be carrying out multiple tasks at once and with great accuracy.  But we shouldn’t multitask, says the same employer, it negatively impacts the quality of our work.

Taking it one step further, I have witnessed workplaces morph from offices staffed with multiple departments.  One would specialize in Task A, whereas another department would specialize in Task B, and so on.  But with the advent of “cross training” now we have employees who can do it all!  Sounds great, right?  Well, not so much.  Let’s just say you learn to carry out Task A very well.  Good for you, you will now be cross trained in Task B.  You then become so adept at Task B, that all of a sudden you find yourself being asked to handle a situation firmly in the realm of Task A, something that you used to be able to do with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back, only to realize you can’t remember how to do it, and so you have to stop what you’re doing, and spend time, which we all know costs the company money, to ask for help.

It seems to me that companies wind up sabotaging themselves, as a great deal of work that is carried out in this type of environment often has to be repeated, either due to the task not being completed in its entirety the first time around, or being carried out incorrectly.  As customers, we all know what it’s like to have to call back repeatedly or make several trips to a merchant to fix an error that could have been easily avoided in the first place.  It’s frustrating for the customer, costly for the company, and demotivating for the worker who only wants the tools to do their job well.  No one ever got up in the morning and headed out the door to work saying, “I think I’ll do a crap job today.”  Over time this kind of environment leads to employee burnout, and that winds up costing everyone, including the taxpayer, money.

Isn’t there a better way of running a business?  How about giving staff the opportunity and tools to utilize their own natural strengths to become as successful as they can be specializing in their own specific role?  What would the end result be?  Instead of wasting time and energy trying to create a well rounded employee, i.e., a jack of all trades and master of none, you could have a well rounded and diverse team.  Wouldn’t that be much more effective?  Personally I think you would have greater productivity, even if department A does have to refer to department B from time to time, at least the job would be done right the first time.  Job satisfaction would increase dramatically, which would lead to higher levels of productivity, which produces happy customers, more revenue for the business, and far fewer employees on long term stress leave.  Seems like a win win situation to me.

What are your thoughts?