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July 24th, 2012

Homeless in Fort Saint John

I just finished eating a nice lunch provided by the Native Friendship Center. It consisted of a
  • Big piece of shepherd’s pie
  • Bun
  • Pineapple juice
  • Pudding
Bag lunches are provided for anybody from a white van that parks in a vacant lot across from the Lido theater every work day between 8:30 and 9:30. I just found out about this service the other day and this is the first time I’ve taken advantage of it. Pretty good lunch for free!
A few weeks ago I got run over by the ice-cream truck of life and joined the ranks of the homeless here in Fort Saint John, British Columbia. Technically, I’m not quite homeless if you count the emergency shelter at the Salvation Army as a home, but it’s just one step away.
Fort Saint John is the farthest north I’ve ever been in our fair province. If you want to find it on a map, locate the border between Alberta and BC, then locate the Alaska Highway. Mile zero on the Alaska Highway is at Dawson Creek and Fort Saint John is around 60 miles up the highway towards Alaska.
This is a totally different type of country than I’ve ever visited and it seems pretty barren after the coastal climate I’m more used to. Trees are mostly poplar or spruce and not very big at all.
Right now the weather is hot and dry because we’re in the middle of the very short summer season. The dominant season here is winter. There are only three frost-free months a year in this area, so it isn’t a great place to be forced to sleep outside. I can’t imagine sleeping on the streets when the temperature is 30 below.
I’m very grateful to be at the Salvation Army shelter. It may not be the most comfortable place in the world, but it’s dry and comfortable and there’s some security because we are behind monitored, locked doors. That means we don’t have to deal with the drunks and meth-heads, don’t have to be on guard against physical attack and we can have a few basic belongings in a safe place where they are unlikely to be stolen.
The element of physical safety is something I have mostly always taken for granted, but life on the streets can be brutal. One fellow from our shelter was sitting on a curb a few days ago minding his own business. Another guy came by and caved his face in with a wine bottle. He is going to need reconstructive surgery to get back some semblance of a face on the right side. This wasn’t a fight. No words were even exchanged. It was just a random act of violence. The guy with the wine bottle just felt like clobbering somebody and when he saw my buddy sitting there he just walked up and let him have it.
The shelter I’m staying in is divided into two parts. The front section acts as a drop-in center during the day and they set up cots at night. Anybody who shows up there between the hours of 9 PM and Midnight can get a bed. This is where the drunks, addicts and the simply bewildered and dysfunctional sleep. You basically get to lie down in your clothes and hang on tightly to your possessions.
I’m in the back room and things there are quite different. As I said, the area is locked and controlled. Everybody has their own bed and it’s the same one each night. We each have a small locker to keep our stuff in. We get fed supper every night at five. Curfew is at 10:00. Lights out at 11:00. We have to be up at 07:00, out on the streets by 09:00 and stay out until 04:00. No drugs, drinking or disrespectful behavior is allowed back there. People don’t always get along but the case-workers have the ultimate threat to keep a lid on things: behave or get sent to the front.
All the people in the back room are sort of in the same boat. We are all at least semi-functional. Everybody is
  • Looking for work
  • Working but has no place to live
  • Completed some kind of detox and starting a new life.
Like I said, we don’t all necessarily like each other but there’s a fair amount of camaraderie because of the shared circumstances and we are all very grateful to have what we do.
Most of us in the back are working. I didn’t have a job when I checked in but now have a job at Safeway. Next step is finding a place to live, and that’s the stage that a lot of my buddies are at as well. The problem is that, if you are a young guy and have a job around here you are most likely working at least 12 hours a day everyday and you don’t have any time or energy to find a home. And of course, a lot are caught in the ‘good job but haven’t been paid yet’ spot. Rents are expensive up here, there isn’t much available and it can take a whole paycheck and part of another just to pay for the first months rent and the damage deposit. Juggling all these factors plus working makes for some very interesting times.
I’m very grateful to be going through this experience, even though it isn’t one I would have chosen. It’s a chance to see a side of life I would never have experienced and to get back in touch with the true basics of life when all the frills are stripped away. It isn’t complete homelessness and I will be able to pull myself back from the brink. It’s a great wake-up call, though. No matter how well you think you are doing life is one big game of snakes-and-ladders. All it takes is one or two bad rolls to drop you down to the bottom of the board.
December 8th, 2011

Great Reads

Today was mainly devoted to cruising the interwebs, reading my favorite blogs and discovering a couple of new ones. Here are today’s picks for thought provoking content and excellent writing. My regular readers, both of them, will really enjoy these articles.

First up is the latest article from Tomdispatch.com. I freely admit that I read and recommend everything that appears on that blog.

Fighting 1% Wars

Why Our Wars of Choice May Prove Fatal

By William J. Astore

America’s wars are remote.  They’re remote from us geographically, remote from us emotionally (unless you’re serving in the military or have a close relative or friend who serves), and remote from our major media outlets, which have given us no compelling narrative about them, except that they’re being fought by “America’s heroes” against foreign terrorists and evil-doers.  They’re even being fought, in significant part, by remote control — by robotic drones “piloted” by ground-based operators from a secret network of bases located hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the danger of the battlefield.

Their remoteness, which breeds detachment if not complacency at home, is no accident.  Indeed, it’s a product of the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq were wars of choice, not wars of necessity.  It’s a product of the fact that we’ve chosen to create a “warrior” or “war fighter” caste in this country, which we send with few concerns and fewer qualms to prosecute Washington’s foreign wars of choice.

Mr Astore is right on here. One thing that he hints at towards the end of the piece, but doesn’t actually say, is that countries that establish the kind of warrior caste that he is talking about wind up being controlled by that class. The Mameluke empire in Egypt is a perfect example. First you achieve foreign power by using mercenaries. Next you use them to maintain order inside your country. Finally, the warriors wake up and realize that they are the only power in the society. As soon as they realize that, they kick your ass to the curb and become the power on the throne instead of the power behind the throne.


Next up is this post from Stonekettle Station. I had never read this blog before today and honestly can’t remember how I came across it. Oh yeah, it was mentioned on my Facebook wall. This blog is now firmly implanted in my bookmarks. The blog is written by Jim Wright. He writes very well, IMHO, likes loooong blog posts and isn’t afraid to cuss in his writing.

Uncivil Righteousness

Opines Bachmann, allowing gay people to marry somebody of the same sex would be conferring special privileges on a select group based on their (presumed) sexual practices. Because, as I’m sure you all know, gay people only want to get married to each other for the squicky gay rainbow sex and not because they actually love each other and want to commit to spending their lives together like normal people do. It’s totally true and you can look that up.

In replying to Ms. Schmidt, Bachmann gave a total of six responses – and those six paragraphs clearly demonstrate why this ridiculous goof should be kept as far from public office, any office, as is possible.  Not only should voters, allvoters especially including conservatives, soundly reject her bid for president, they shouldn’t even elect her to be the town dog catcher – let alone a United States lawmaker.

I have to say that I haven’t been following American politics at all recently. The last time I paid any attention was when Obama ran against McCain. Look how that turned out. I’ve never heard of Michelle Bachmann, but same-sex marriage interests me and this article does a masterful job of dissecting the issue and exposing the sheer silliness of its opponents.

One of the good things about being a Canadian is that we are ahead of the curve on this issue. Ever since Trudeau said that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, we’ve been slowly pecking away and overturning all the outmoded laws against various kinds of sexual expression. Not that we’re perfect. Right now we are wrestling with polygamy statutes, and we have tough time differentiating in the area of cultural norms, but we are on the right track. Of course, all that could change now that George W Harper has a majority in Parliament, but we can hope.


My last offering is from John Carleton’s blog, The Rant. Carleton is a copy-writer and I first got to know his stuff in the context of marketing. I really like his folksy, profane way of writing, and most of his stuff is not so much about marketing as about life.

The Lost Art Of Rumination

If you aren’t clear on WHY you want to get rich…

… then, once you get there, you’re gonna be one lost little puppy.

It’s like mobilizing your life to move somewhere you think will make you happy. You can do it, and you can wind up in a gorgeous penthouse in the best part of town… but if your next thought is “now what?”, then you may be left wondering what it all means. With no answer forthcoming.

Again

There are tons of books and coaching programs and seminars available that claim to make planning out your life easy. They’ll help you with the “here’s what I want to do“, and “here’s how I can get that done” processes…

… but every single one I’ve seen is woefully deficient in helping you understand “WHY I want to do that in the first place.”

The “why’s” of life are mostly ignored. It’s taken for granted that big houses, fancy sports cars, better looking spouses, bigger/better/nicer/more expensive everything is of COURSE the preferred goal.

And maybe that’s true for you.

This article really rang a bell for me. I’m in the process of rebuilding my life and I’ve found exactly the situation he talks about here. There are all kinds of resources for setting goals and achieving targets and time management, but damned little about discovering where you really want to go or why you should want to go there. I really enjoyed this little nugget, too:

In my view, you don’t need money to be successful. Money just solves the problems that not having money creates… so having “enough” money, in this culture, can help you stay clear of the time-consuming bullshit of scrambling to keep a roof over your head and food in your gut.

Right on, John. Anyway, those are my top reading picks for today. Hope you enjoy them.

November 8th, 2011

Occupy the world and take back our money

It’s funny to watch all the howling going on among the wealthy and the financial institutions about the transaction tax, as though them being forced to pay anything at all would bring the world to a shuddering halt.

The economy is broken and we need a better one. Pure capitalism simply doesn’t work anymore. Capitalism is touted almost like a religion nowadays, as though it was the only moral and right way to manage an economy. The funny thing about that is that Adam Smith, the founder of modern capitalism warned against its dangers should it become the dominant force in society. He presumed that religion and common sense would act as a counter-force to the sheer unbridled greed of pure capitalism. Sorry, Adam, that dog don’t hunt no more.

The transaction tax wouldn’t be a huge burden. The one being argued about in Europe is only 3 basis points or $3 on every $10,000 traded. It would certainly have an affect on the volume traders, because they make a lot of their money by trading huge volumes.

A financial transaction tax is not a novel idea. Actually, the U.S. had such a tax from 1914 to 1966, when the tax forced investors to pay a small fee every time they executed a trade. It was intended not only to raise revenue for the government, but also to deter excessive speculation. Congress has flirted with the idea of resurrecting the tax in some shape or form ever since it went away back in the 60s, but there has never been enough support for one.

A transaction tax might depress the economy somewhat, but maybe that’s a good thing. The economy as its structure right now is a rigged game that only benefits a few.

We need to come up with some way of decoupling the health of the economy from the health of Wall Street corporations. We also need a new economic model that doesn’t depend on growth. If we can’t achieve a better system we’ll wind up in a situation where a few uber-wealthy people have eaten the world while the rest of us starve in the dark.

The fat cats and the politicians don’t get it. They didn’t understand what was behind the Arab Spring, they don’t understand the Occupy Wall Street movement either. Its a simple matter of inequity.

There’s a famous psychological experiment that revolves around two subjects and a fixed amount of money. If both subjects can agree on how the money is divided up, they get to keep it. The kicker is that one person is in charge of deciding how the money is split, but the other person has veto power on whether the division takes place. If they can’t get together they both lose.

This experiment has been tried with people from all societies and all economic classes and the results are pretty universal. Somewhere around the 70/30 mark people start to dig in there heels. If things go much farther than that, the deal is off. It works both ways, too. If person A says he’ll take 20% and give the other person 80%, person B will protest and try to move things back to something more equitable, even though it costs him. There seems to be a brain structure devoted to fairness in these kinds of situations.

If there is, then the people in power have brain damage. There’s another brain structure in charge empathy. Serial killers have damage in that area and that part of the brain doesn’t light up when they inflict pain on others. Bankers and stock brokers must have similar damage to their equity brain structures.

That’s what the occupy movement is about, basic equity. There’s something they got wrong though. They say “we are the 99%” when actually, they are the 99.9998%. Those are the figures in Canada, anyway, and the same situation is probably true throughout the western world.

The wealthy have privilege but no responsibility. We have 61 billionaires in Canada. Their combined wealth is $162 billion. Our national debt is only 33 billion. If they were all equally wealthy they would each have $2.7 billion and if they gave up 1/6 of their wealth they could clear our national debt. Something is very wrong with that picture.

There’s a myth going around that says we have to leave the wealthy in peace because their investment of their wealth into the economy is what makes growth possible and ensures a healthy economy. Its definitely time to kick that old chestnut to the curb.

Actually, that used to be the case. Corporations used to re-invest almost all their profits back into the economy. That was the situation in Canada until the 1980s. But it isn’t the case any more. Now the profits are paid out in dividends, salaries and bonuses, and very little is actually invested. Long term growth has been sacrificed for short-term dividends. One more problem that arises when the health of the stock market gets confused with the health of the economy.

The most interesting thing about that is the timing of the change. The reduction in re-investment has grown as corporate taxes have been cut. Businesses used to pay taxes of 36%. Brian Mulroney’s government began cutting the tax rate in 1988. That tax rate will be 12% at the end of 2011. Its almost like a disease broke out when government began cutting taxes. The businesses got a taste for extra money, and that demand for more and more short-term payoffs is being reflected in the lack of investment. Whatever the reasons, the trends speak for themselves.

We need to develop some new rules of thumb that guide us in economic issues. One might be that people who have acquired more than a specific amount of wealth have to begin underwriting some of societies expense. Maybe the Labatt family should have to fund education in Canada, or the Bronfmanns have to contribute some percentage of their wealth to child care. Or maybe those 61 billionaires could agree to fund the health system.

We’ve been told that times are tough and that we have to tighten our belts and slash programs. That’s a big cartload of horseshit. There’s more money flowing now than there ever has been. The only reason we’re in trouble is because a few movers and shakers have gotten their grubby mitts on the levers of power and rigged things so that all that flow is diverted into a small number of buckets. Quite simply, if the money wasn’t there, they wouldn’t have it.

Those sixty-one billionaires own twice as much wealth as the rest of us combined. Its not because they are necessarily smarter and it certainly isn’t because they contribute more or have greater responsibilities. Something has to change. It will change. That kind of change isn’t restricted to the middle east.

Here’s a final, possible rule of thumb. Make it illegal for any employee of a company to earn more than 100 times the wage of the lowest paid worker in the company. That would be a step in the right direction.

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November 3rd, 2011

White Kermode Bears of British Columbia

kermode bear

This post is to introduce the Kermode Bear.

I’ve always liked bears. Bears have been a part of my life since I lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Up there, bears were always just around in the neighborhood. We had one big one that had a path through our garden plot that he used several times a year and never deviated from. It was simply his sidewalk to get down the mountainside.

We finally fenced the garden plot with paige wire. The bear showed up the evening after we completed the fence, but before we had the gate installed. He tried to push through the wire but couldn’t do it, or didn’t want to expend the energy it would require, I don’t know which. Anyway, he veered off and walked along the fence line and found a new way down, which he followed from then on. The funny thing about that was that the open gateway was just four feet from the point where he tried to push through the fence. If he had wanted to he could have taken two steps to the right and walked through the garden. But he didn’t. I always thought that was kinda respectful.

Now that I’m living in Courtenay, bears are back in my life big-time. The park where I walk my West Highland Terrier is bounded by a large river on one side and a very high-producing salmon creek on the other. There has been a mother bear with two cubs resident in the park since the salmon started running. We’ve run into her a couple of times without any major upset on either side.

The most recent siting was on Halloween. We were walking down First Avenue. It was close to dusk and the trick-or-treaters were just starting to appear. There was a break in the traffic, and, all of sudden, momma bear and cubs ran across the road in front of us and into the park. They had been cleaning up apples in somebody’s back yard. There were some other people and kids around trolling for candy. Nobody was particularly upset.

The bears we had in the Charlottes were Black Bears, of course. I’ve also had dealings with Grizzlies when I was cruising timber in the interior of B.C. Never had anything to do with Polar Bears, though.

The Kermode Bear is white

One of the most interesting types of bear that we have in B.C. Is the Kermode bear. The Kermode bear is a white phase of the common Black Bear, that occurs in the coastal forests of British Columbia. These bears aren’t albinos. They don’t have pink eyes. It seems that some Black Bears carry a recessive gene for white color. If both parents have the gene they’ll throw white cubs even though both of them are black. You can see that in the photograph. Based on that, if two white bears mated, they would also throw white, so the white variant would breed true if they kept to themselves. If one of the parents was white some cubs would be black and some white. I think that’s how it goes, anyway.

The Kermode bear has become the totem of the Great Bear Rainforest. The white bears have been awarded the title Spirit Bear. I don’t know whether the first nations people called them that, or whether the name was dreamed up by a public relations firm for Greenpeace. You really can’t tell fact from tradition very easily anymore. Cool name, though.

The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest unlogged parcel of temperate rainforest in the world and it stretches from mid-way up the B.C. Coast up into Alaska. Most of this area is protected now, totaling about 7,700 sq miles. The area includes the coastal forests and most of the islands. Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes are not included, but that seems to be more political than anything else. Based on habitat they should be a part of the Great Bear.

Anyway, the Great Bear Rainforest is protected because of tremendous efforts on the part of environmental activists. There have been many confrontations with loggers and other developers. Things seem to have settled down into a kind of detente now. Logging is less important to the coastal economy and tourism is becoming one of the big money-makers. As long as that situation holds the area is probably safe.

Even though the Great Bear Rainforest is protected from logging and most development, there is constant pressure on it. The area isn’t safe from environmental disasters. There was a ferry sunk recently that caused a lot of damage along the coastline. The biggest threat to it right now is that oil companies want to push a pipeline through the area. So the fight goes on to protect this area.

The Kermode bear isn’t seen very often. Mostly they stay farther back in the woods than people go. They are reputed to be very shy. There are exceptions, though. There was one Kermode Bear named Gimpy that lived around Terrace for years and was quite ham. He wasn’t shy at all.

There’s an excellent video on the National Geographic site about the Kermode bear. It was made in 2010, by Paul Nicklen. The video runs about 10 minutes and it contains the best shots of the Kermode Bear that I have ever seen. Check it out. Its great.

October 20th, 2011

Modern Amazons

Black Amazons

The Amazons of Black Sparta

This is the fourth, and probably final article about amazons. Unlike the other amazons I talked about in the previous articles, there is no doubt that these girls existed almost up till the beginning of the twentieth century.

Here’s the citation from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson:

Despite the rich variety of Amazon legends from ancient Greece, South America, Africa and elsewhere, there is only one historically documented example of female warriors. This is the women’s army that existed among the Fon of Dahomey in West Africa, now Benin.

These female warriors have never been mentioned in the published military histories; no romanticized films have been made about them, and today they exist as no more than footnotes to history. Only one scholarly work has been written about these women, Amazons of Black Sparta by Stanley B. Alpern (C., Hurst & Company, London, 1998), and yet they made up a force that was the equal of every contemporary body of male elite soldiers from among the colonial powers.

It is not clear exactly when Fon’s female army was founded, but some sources date it to the 1600s. It was originally a royal guard, but it developed into a military collective of 6000 soldiers with a semi-divine status. They were not merely window dressing. For almost 200 years they constituted the vanguard of the Fon against European colonizers. They were feared by the French forces, who lost several battles against them. This army of women was not defeated until 1892, when France sent troops with artillery, the Foreign Legion, a marine infantry regiment, and cavalry.

It is not known how many of these female warriors fell in battle. For many years survivors continued to wage guerrilla warfare, and veterans of the army were interviewed and photographed as late as the 1940s.

When Khadaffi set up his all-girl bodyguard, he was actually following tradition, not doing something radical. The amazons of Dahomey started out as a bodyguard. Eventually their numbers grew and they made up a third of the army. Wikipedia has a good article on the amazons of Dahomey. The book about these women warriors that was mentioned in the quote is available from, where else, amazon.

Although these female warriors were fierce on the battlefield, its probably incorrect to give them entire credit for Dahomey remaining independent for so long. The kingdom of Dahomey was the chief supplier of slaves to the transatlantic slave trade. This meant that it was more valuable to the european powers as a source of slaves than it was as a colony. Once slavery was abolished the fate of Dahomey was sealed. It took two years to achieve, but France conquered the kingdom in 1894 and kept control of it until 1958. The former kingdom of Dahomey is now known as Benin.

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