Thursday, November 24, 2016

Only in California

Calm and reason appear to have returned to the isolated corners of America. At least they have in the corner that I am visiting.

I am strolling North Oakland, California watching people drink coffee, eat ice cream cones and chat about the weather. Any anxiety over the country having elected a president suffering from HPD (Histrionic Personality Disorder) certainly is not evident.

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth continues in places like Washington and New York, but this is California. Surf is up, sun is out and life rolls along through good times or catastrophes.

I step into a short, cramped pedestrian walk named Temescal Alley, which originally housed stables for the horses that drew wagons through the tunnel connecting the San Francisco Bay area with the country east of the mountains.

Temescal Alley has been reborn. The stable doors have been replaced by artsy doorways into boutiques where shop owners not only sell, but craft on site their jewellery and other goods.

Inside the Temescal Alley Barber Shop I find a slice of what I grew up understanding was the real America.

It is a small shop with six chairs, antique style with cast metal foot rests, white porcelain trim and black leather seats and backs. Guys wearing gray-striped barber’s drapes occupy the chairs, getting haircuts, a straight razor shave or beard trim.

Two small dogs sleep in a basket in corner. One of them wears a knitted doggie blanket coat featuring Frosty the Snowman.

The shelf above the dog bed holds a whiskey flask and shot glasses for any customer wishing to enjoy a free shot while waiting for an empty chair. (During Prohibition, people wanting an illegal drink in San Francisco usually could find one in a barbershop).

The waits can be long here. There are no appointments. You just walk in and add your name to the list on a chalkboard by the door. When the place gets busy and seating room is limited you can sit outside on a bench in the alleyway and sip a whiskey and chat with others.

Few customers mind the waits. If you do mind, you should find a quick clip place where your hair is buzzed into shape in 10 minutes.

This place hums with  conversations covering everything from kids to Golden State Warriors’ basketball. Everything, it seems, except the election of Donald Trump, now to be known as vulgarian-in-chief.

It is a flashback to an earlier America when barbershops were gathering places where community news and gossip were exchanged. When life was slower and there was time to think, discuss and exchange information in more than140-word bursts.

Past does meet the present here. The antique shop look is broken by modern Douglas Fir trim and a large skylight with frosted sliding panels. And, most of the barbers – four male, two female – sport tattoos.

The barbershop was opened five years ago by two guys seeking a return to old-style craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship is evident. The barbers take their time with scissors and razors, giving their customers a cleanly sculpted look. Hairlines are shaped with shaving cream and razors. Haircuts usually take 25 to 30 minutes to complete.

Customers pay for the old-style ambience and the close attention to their grooming. A haircut is $30. A  straight-razor shave is $35 and a beard trim $15. No credit or debit cards. Cash only.

The barbershop and other little shops of Temescal Alley are born of the individualism so characteristic of California. Individualism that made it a leader in the entertainment and high tech industries, among other things.

It is an individualism that creates new ideas, new things and cultural changes, many of which usually come our way. Individualism carries Californians through droughts, wildfires and earthquakes. It will carry them through the political earthquake of the 2016 presidential election.

This is Thanksgiving Week in the USA. Friday is Black Friday, the day when millions lay their credit cards on the altars of consumerism.

For some Californians, however, it is Green Friday, and environmental groups have arranged free day passes to 116 state parks.

Green Friday. A day in the woods instead of the malls. Another cool idea.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lessons from the Back 40

Blue jays are such contradictory creatures.

I’m not thinking baseball’s Blue Jays, who hit everything out of the park one day, but can’t make contact with anything smaller than a 10-pin bowling ball the next.

I am in the Back 40  watching genuine blue jays gorge themselves on a pile of cracked corn. Their brilliant blue crest-to-rump feathers, white chests and underbellies, plus sharp black detailing, are a contradiction in the autumn forest.

The time of spectacular colour has long passed. This is the time of sombre dullness here. The canopy’s few remaining leaves, almost all stubborn oaks, are the colour of wet rust. The scarlets, persimmons, and golds that drew oohs and aahs last month have succumbed to the greyness of a Back 40 waiting for winter.

Yet the gaudy jays flitter and soar, vibrant blue-white-black flashes brightening an otherwise comatose landscape.

Their noise also is a contradiction. This is supposed to be a time of quiet here as living things stand silent, listening for winter’s approaching footsteps.

Not the jays. Their piercing ‘jay, jay, jay’ and other vocal hysterics are unnerving breaks in the Back 40 quiet.

I come here to escape the noisy conflicts of the outside world. We all need occasional breaks from the clashing and crashing of a society that seems to be losing its collective mind.

The noise of the jays at least is bearable, until a squabble breaks out in the corn pile. I’m guessing there are 3,000 kernels of corn in that pile. Maybe more. There is at least enough to feed every blue jay in the forest for the next week. Yet, we have a fight over who gets what kernel first.

Blue jays, like humans, are extremely territorial. But their territorial disputes, unlike ours, are brief because the birds realize that fighting only diminishes eating time.

Humans have yet to figure that out. We continue to go to war against each other, and when we are not fighting, we yell at each other and hold grudges, often for years, sometimes centuries.

We enter desperate periods when we turn to leaders with small minds and hard hearts; leaders who base their opinions and actions on emotions, not facts. Hello, Trump, Marine La Pen, Vlad Putin, et al.

These extreme leaders make loud noises and flash bright colours. Like the blue jays, they are contradictions in a time when patience and calm and quiet intelligence are needed.

There are voices of quiet intelligence and reason among us. Unfortunately, the masses are not hearing them, or perhaps don’t want to hear them. These voices are little heard in the global news media, which has decided it is better to tell people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.

There was an example recently of what can happen when intelligent people understand that when they stop fighting there is more time to share good things.

The heads of the Lutheran and Catholic churches met in Sweden three weeks ago to set aside differences and work to understand each other. Pope Francis and Lutheran President Bishop Munib Younan met to begin healing the wounds of a 500-year-old religious war that dramatically altered global Christianity.

The war started in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed 95 arguments to the door of a Catholic church in Germany. His statements denounced Catholic Church corruption, notably the sale of indulgences. That incident created the Protestant Reformation, and centuries of hatred and bloody wars.

In Lutheran Sweden, Catholics were persecuted and barred from certain professions and until the 1970s Catholic convents were forbidden. Lutherans were called heretics by Catholics.

Luther of course was right. The church was corrupt, but he was excommunicated for saying it.

Francis has exercised his quiet leadership by calling Luther a reformer and admitting that the Catholic church had made mistakes. Younan said the Swedish meeting was an example of how religions can work together without always contributing more conflict to an already troubled world.

The lesson from the Swedish meeting, and from the blue jays in Back 40, is clear: when we stop pecking at each other, we can get a lot more problems solved.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Torture in the New Residential Schools

The torture of Adam Capay in Thunder Bay Jail says as much about how politicians are failing us as anything else happening in the world today.

As much as Brexit, as much as the U.S. election nightmare, as much as the surge of the Pirate Party in Iceland. As much as any of the political upheavals created by people rising up and demanding better government and better politicians dedicated to providing it.

Capay, a young man from Lac Seul First Nation near Sioux Lookout, has been in solitary confinement for more than four years. The lights are on 24 hours a day in his Plexiglas cell, making it impossible for him to know if it is night or day. He has been in this cell 52 months, awaiting trial for the killing of another inmate.

Ontario’s politicians and bureaucrats are yip yapping the usual lines, calling the Capay case unacceptable and not nice. Premier Wynne calls it disturbing.

Well Ms. Premier, here’s what I call it: * * * outrageous, evil, cruel and criminal. Clearly it is a violation of international laws regarding torture.

At first word of the Capay treatment Wynne should have been on an airplane to Thunder Bay to personally manage and correct this outrageous wrong. The premier’s mind, however, can’t seem to get outside downtown Toronto and its pressing issues of gender neutral language and bicycle lanes.

Especially sickening is that the Ontario government knew about Capay’s torture for a long time and did nothing. Protocols for solitary confinement mean that dozens of monthly reports on Capay’s segregation were sent, or should have been sent, to the ministry of institutional services.

The dirt only hit the fan when Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane was tipped to Capay’s plight. She visited him and witnessed the conditions in which he is being held.

A bright spot in this ugly story is that a jail guard pushed it into the spotlight by informing Mandhane. That’s heartening because corrections officials have not been known to show much empathy for aboriginal inmates.

I recall vividly being slipped a plain brown envelope many years ago that contained a photocopy of a top-secret Northwest Territories prison training manual. The manual informed new prison staff that aboriginals are “lazy, uncreative, unthrifty and adolescent,” traits that come from their “mongol origins.”

Hopefully the sentiments in that training manual have long disappeared, but the shockingly high rates of aboriginal imprisonment have not.

Almost 25 per cent of inmates in Canadian federal, provincial and territorial lockups are aboriginal. Aboriginals are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned in Canada than non-indigenous people. Ninety per cent of the inmates at Thunder Bay Jail are aboriginal.

Our prisons and jails are the new residential schools. 

The Capay story shows us clearly the political rot in Ontario and the urgent need to overhaul our democracy.

Much of the rot can be attributed to swelling numbers of career politicians whose decisions too often are based on re-election, rather than the concerns and needs of the people. They are masters of the political game, when they should be masters of the art of management.

Good managers lead from out front and recognize problems before they become crises. Letting a young man sit in a brightly-lighted Plexiglas cell for more than four years is managing from the bleachers instead of being on the field.

This Ontario government, and others of the last three decades or more, have demonstrated that they are incapable of managing a peanut stand.

The way to get fewer career politicians and better government is for people to become involved in the political process. The next Ontario election is in 2018 and people need to become involved now in the nomination process.

That means deciding what type of people we need in government and encouraging them to run. It means challenging the existing nomination practices and, if necessary, tossing people who have been a political party’s choice.

This is not about party politics. It is about getting into government people dedicated to working for the people, not the party. If that means people without political party affiliations, all the better.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Autumn of the Demented

Red squirrels always have been, well a bit squirrelly, but this fall they are completely crazy.

They are high in the hemlocks, gorging seeds then leaping bough to bough and kuk-kuking incessantly. They are in perpetual motion this year, not stopping for more than a second at a time. I’ve never seen them so wild and crazy.

They haven’t acted this nuts since they raided my ATV shed and chewed two holes in the gas tank. After paying the $400 repair bill, I labelled the incident as random gas sniffing by a couple of delinquent squirrels.

This fall they are spending much of their time in the hemlocks, when usually they are in the oaks, or on the ground below gathering sweet, rich acorns.

It got me wondering whether there might be something psychedelic in the hemlock seeds. After all, it was a poisonous hemlock drink that did in the Greek philosopher Socrates. And, dead hemlock wood is where Reishi mushrooms, said to have medicinal qualities, flourish,.

I discover, however, that our eastern hemlock is not the species mixed into the drink given to Socrates. Plus, there is no evidence that Reishi are magic ‘rooms that make you crazy.

My investigation did turn up something fresh and interesting. Researchers have found that some animals, like humans, get dementia as they age. I don’t know the ages of the squirrels I have been watching but they certainly are acting demented.

The researchers are warning pet owners that an estimated 1.3 million cats and dogs in Britain suffer from dementia. They say one-third of dogs develop some form of dementia from age 11 and two-thirds of dogs start at age 15.

"I don't think that people really realize how serious this problem is," Holger Volk, of the Royal Veterinary College, a leading veterinary scientist, was quoted in The London Telegraph.

Obesity, caused by cheap pet food and lack of exercise, helps bring on dementia in dogs and cats, he said.

Reports of dementia among cats and dogs are increasing. One British woman told The Telegraph that she suspected something was wrong with her sixteen-year-old cat Emma when it started meowing at the walls. Then it began walking around in circles and getting stuck in corners. She became alarmed and took Emma to a vet who diagnosed her with cognitive dysfunction syndrome, also known as feline dementia.

Emma’s actions would not have alarmed me because I’ve seen the same type of behaviour among humans at late night parties.

All this news about pet dementia does, however, explain much about the bizarre behaviour of pets I have known.

I always thought it was a mean streak that caused our dog Peanuts, now gone to the Big Kennel in the Sky, to act the way she did. Like how she used to run into the house and throw up on the living room rug whenever she saw me going off fishing without her.

Or the time we gave her two meatballs in tomato sauce as a special treat. She ran off with them and returned later with a satisfied belch and smile. We assumed that she thoroughly enjoyed them and was thankful for our kindness.  Later we found the two meatballs, still whole, tucked into the folds of my wife’s favourite white satin bedspread.

So now we know that her nastiest tricks came not from a mean streak, but from canine dementia.

If cats and dogs can develop dementia, I suppose squirrels can too. But my squirrels are not old, don’t eat cheap pet food, are not obese and certainly are not lacking exercise. Quite the opposite.

When they run about crazy-like, stamping their little paws, shaking their heads and flicking their tails while pouring down on me a stream of curses and squirrel dirty words they are being deliberately hateful.

This is behaviour designed as pure revenge. Retribution for treating with “extreme prejudice” the two gas sniffers who ate my ATV. And the two others who chewed into my bunkhouse, looking for a warm winter home.

No, these squirrels don’t have animal dementia. They are just squirrels being squirrels. They think they own the place.