Wednesday, 21 June 2017

In Defense of Millennials

Millennials get blamed for all kinds of stuff. Just do a search for "Millennials are..." and you will learn they are lazy, they are "the worst", and they are killing everything from golf to paper napkins to department stores to big banks to call centres to fabric softener to the diamond industry to packaged vacations.

In the recent UK elections, pollsters were stunned by the huge turnout of youth voters. Exit polls say a full two thirds of young voters supported Labour. The same polls found that the vast majority of older voters, those 65 and up, supported the Conservatives.

Here in Alberta, UCP hopeful Jason Kenney finds millennials disconcerting. After his own federal Conservative Party was trounced in Canada's 2015 election, and the now-less-than-progressive Conservative Party he leads were decimated in Alberta's election in May of that same year, he ponders why young people do not support his ideology.

Once again, millennials are blamed for killing something. This time it is conservatism.

Mr. Kenney suggests that today's youth are ignorant and entitled. He suggests because they did not live through the "catastrophic failure of socialism in the last century" they have no idea what it is and are therefore voting for it. He says that because they were "born into the highest standard of living in all of human history" they do not know adversity and think money flows freely from an ATM. He says they are foolish to support an increased minimum wage or a tuition freeze. Because that's bad for the economy.

Maybe if Mr. Kenney had attended public school in Alberta instead of private school in Saskatchewan, he would have learned something about ideologies. Maybe he would know the meaning of the word "socialism". Maybe he would know the difference between the scientific socialism of Karl Marx and the communism of Soviet Russia, the socialist market economy of China and the social democracy practiced in much of Europe, including Nordic nations which consistently rank highest for both happiness and freedom. Maybe then he could be more specific when he talks about the "catastrophic failure" of an ideology that he clearly does not understand.

Perhaps if Mr. Kenney had developed some critical thinking skills in school, he would use facts to support his position instead of erroneous assumptions.

Kenney was born not long after me. When I went to school, tuition at the U of A was $600 a year. I rented a 3 bedroom house for $415 a month. My parents estimated that a year of university, tuition, food and housing was about $3000. I made $8.50/hr at my summer job. Every single person I knew got a job when they graduated. I was offered jobs I hadn't even applied for. 

My youngest kid just completed his university education at the U of A- where one year in tuition and mandatory fees and books is now $9600. His shared apartment (on a year lease) was $600/month. Dorms and meals at Lister Hall are a mandatory minimum of $9300 for an 8 month term. His summer student income was $17/hr. In other words, the cost of that 8 month term at university is more than 6 times what it was when I went to school, while the typical student summer wage has just doubled.

My own millennial kids would tell those who seek to blame them for the death of diamonds and golf and vacations that they can't afford those things and they don't anticipate a future where that will change. They might also say they have a healthy respect for the environment which makes them consume less. And they would also tell him that after years of living on noodles and chickpeas in shared housing without owning vehicles or taking vacations, they clearly do understand what financial management is.

Millennials understand adversity. Not only did my kids live on poverty level wages while obtaining their education, they lived with the constant stress of not knowing if they would get work when they were done. Recent studies show that young people entering the workforce today earn far less than their parents did at the same age. In fact, it is believed millennials will be the first generation in history to earn less than the generation before them.  All of this adds up to a great deal of stress  According to some studies, 44% of millennials suffer from depression and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this age category.

The real truth, when it comes to millennials is that the people of my generation and Mr. Kenney's generation implemented decades of austerity which have hurt today's young people, all with the idea "I can't afford to pay more taxes".  Is it any wonder they consider another approach?

By the next provincial election, millennials will make up 39 % of the electorate. Kenney and co. need to start offering them viable alternatives for their future if they want their vote instead of criticizing them and their legitimate worldview.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Land that Sustains Us

Social Studies Lessons for Kenney Part 3

Shortly after my husband and I married, we backpacked throughout Southeast Asia. I relished seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and the Golden Temple in Bangkok. I loved travelling by boat over the Chao Phraya and seeing the Irrawaddy flow through the rice paddiies of Burma, as it was called back them. I was careful not to touch the monks in their saffron robes. 

Pagan, Burma
Part of my excitement stemmed from the teaching of my grade eight teacher Ydella Dulcetta. Daughter of an Australian who came to Canada to teach school, Ydella loved the classics and bitterly complained that her parents had forbidden her from studying in Rome. Her revenge was to learn and teach Latin and marry Joe, an Italian she had met on vacation. Her teaching style was based on rote learning and personal stories. She told stories about the characters from history and about her own life. At the beginning of every class a student would give a 10 question quiz on the course content. Whoever had the highest mark created the quiz for the next day. Today I can recite the names of the largest 5 islands of Indonesia in order of size and the religions, capital cities and principal rivers and chief exports of SE Asia. And I know more about the Dulcetta's home life than I probably have a right to.
On the Chao Phraya
In grade 9 Wayne Mould was my Social Studies teacher. We spent weeks designing the ultimate city. I loved his class. I felt deeply connected to the lands we studied.

Long before I was born, departments of education in much of Canada decided that Social Studies should be an interdisciplinary subject encompassing history, geography, law, politics, economics and the social sciences. Geography, sadly, has taken a back seat in our issues-focused Social Studies culture. It's unfortunate because I think everything begins with the land. The land sustains us. The land provides us with an economic base. The land shapes culture and interactions. 

Today, we think about "the land" especially in regard to our relationship to it. How closely are we tied to a particular piece of land? How do we treat it? Is it possible to "own" it? Why do treaties about the land matter? Who decides what activities should occur on it? Who cleans it up? What happens to all of humanity if it is damaged? We talk about it as something of particular significance to our First Nations brothers and sisters, but really, it is a tangible living thing that impacts us all. No matter what kind of "relationship" we have with the land, without it, we are nothing.

Near Fawcett, Alberta
When my daughter was in kindergarten, she came home crying one day. "What's the matter, Missy?"  I asked.  "Mademoiselle Cantin says we are killing the earth. And I love the earth!" A case of overkill for my over-sensitive daughter. But a lesson that cannot be taught often enough. 

Everything starts with the land. 

Monday, 29 May 2017

El Camino: What to Take

Some practical suggestions with thanks to Connie!

NOTE: You can stay in hotels which makes towel/sleeping bag unnecessary. You can hire companies to carry your bag forward if you really want to take a lot of stuff. You can even use a company that will book your accommodation and forward your bags.  That's one way to go. We didn't go that route. 

Backpack. Ditch that 2007 pack you bought to hike the Inca Trail. It might have been state of the art at the time but it isn't now. Get yourself over to MEC or Camper's or Atmosphere. Buy a pack that is really light and easy on the back. MEC calls these smaller bags "overnight" bags but you can get enough gear for your 10-15 days into the small bag if you do it right. Get the staffers to adjust the straps for you. You want a pack that is 35-40 liters in capacity. No larger. Seriously. One with pouches on the waistband, a side pouch for your water bottle, one easy-access top compartment and a waterproof cover.

With the old grey backpack that was ditched en route
Clothes Three changes should suffice although I took 5. One pair of shorts, one pair of capris, one pair of lightweight nylon pants, a longsleeved shirt, two sleeveless shirts and two t-shirts. Ok, I actually took 3 long sleeved shirts and ditched 2 of them. Take lightweight drip dry stuff since you will need to wash it and have it dry every second day. Some people sleep in their clothes. I think that is yucky. I took leggings for sleep time. Also a fleecy jacket and one of those super light down jackets you can stuff into a bag and the lightest breathable waterproof jacket you can get or a cheap poncho. The lightest you can get. Really important-good socks, like the light or medium weight PhD socks from MEC. Are you picking up what I am laying down? Go light!

A Belt  Because by the end your pants will be falling off.

Walking poles I found them indispensable. Ours were the Black Diamond ones that telescope down and click into place, not the "screw down and lock" kind. A German lady will tell you the metal tips make a clickety-clack the villagers don't like and you should buy the rubber tips like she has. In fact she will tell you the metal tips are illegal. You can get the rubber tips at MEC I believe. I liked the clickety clack so take that, cranky German lady! 

Sleeping bag. If you are staying at albergues (which I recommend for at least a few nights), they do not all have blankets, so if you go in spring (which I also recommend) it gets a bit chilly at night. Take the smallest and lightest sleeping bag you can find. Doesn't need to be warm. We had one from Camper's Village and found another at Atmosphere. If you go in late spring, summer or early fall, a sheet will do. You do not need a sleeping mat or air mattress.

Toiletries  Hairbrush. Folding toothbrush. Small toothpaste. Solid round shampoo in a square tin as sold by LUSH (doubles as laundry detergent). Small sunscreen. Small Purell. Antibiotic cream. Tiny sewing kit. Tweezers. Blister band-aids. Bring lots of those. Painkillers- I always take a combination bottle of aspirin, advil, mersyndol and naproxen with some benadryl for allergies. And some Imodium, just in case. Never used it though.

Towel The super absorbent kind that rolls into a teeny pouch. 

Toilet paper


Footware  Hiking boots- I have a wonky ankle so I bought boots with a lot of ankle support . Most of you won't need that. Make sure they roomy as you feet may swell and they will take a beating. One guy we met said his feet hurt every day. BREAK THOSE BOOTS IN!  I thought I had by walking 3 km every day for 10 days, but you should really walk with your fully loaded pack for a good 10 km at least twice.  Otherwise you could get blisters like I did. Plus lightweight shoes or sandals because after 20 km, you need to remove those boots. I had a pair of super light Skechers and hubby took his Birkenstocks.

Electronics  Some people don't take a camera, but we love taking photos and a camera phone doesn't cut it. But I would consider a smaller, lighter camera that could go in the waistband of the backpack. Phone. Get yours unlocked and buy a SIM card that is good for Spain and Portugal. You can get a good plan with lots of data for cheap at the airport or any cellphone shop.  We went with Orange. Sometimes access to Google Maps is needed, or your phone for that matter. Kindle. Travel adapter. Cordless multiple outlet extension device so you can recharge multiple items at once. No more chargers than absolutely necessary.

Headlamp For those early morning getaways. Some people used their camera flashlight.

Waterbottle  Light plastic, large.

Large ziplock bags Just because.

Hat  One with a large brim as the sun is intense.

Pilgrim's Passport. Also called a "credencial." Order it online from the Canadian Company of Pilgrims. You will need to stay in the albergues and you will need to get it stamped with a "sello"  twice a day for the last 100 km at albergues, bars and cafes and churches along the route in order to get your compostela at the end. It is fun to collect the stamps as each one is unique.

Guidebook The Germans used a yellow guidebook called "Outdoor:The Way is the Goal". There are lots of others. We used John Brierley's Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino Portugues. A must have.

Weird thing we took and would take again  Tiny projector. We have one the size of a deck of cards that connects to your phone. We watched movies on it, including The Way with Martin Sheen.

What we should have taken: Noise cancelling headphones or earplugs for the snoring in the albergues.

What we should have left behind: The Ipads. The numerous electronic chargers. The sweat-inducing crappy waterproof jacket.  A skirt. Some dressy shoes my hubby carried and I never wore. The umbrella. The bathing suits.  

Oldest cross on the camino

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

El Camino: Why Walk the Portuguese Way

I love to travel. But I rarely tell anyone to go to the places I have been.

For the Portuguese Way of the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I will make an exception. 

You should go.

If you have a passport and you can scrape together the airfare and have 15 days of vacation and you can walk 10 km a day, you should go.

You should go for the solitude and the companionship. You should go for the rest and for the exercise. You should go for the simple pleasure of going to bed each night physically exhausted. You should go to be alone with your thoughts and go to share them with others. You should go for the surprises that lie around each corner. The scenery that will stop you in your tracks over and over again every day. The walled medieval cities and the sleepy villages and the arched bridges and the seaside paths and the wide valleys and the forested mountains and the neighbours chatting by their gates. The ancient stone walls covered in moss and the grapevines unfurling in the vineyards and and the burbling streams and the early morning dew on the newly planted fields and the sun on the lemon trees and the spring flowers and the hills of yellow broom and the overgrown ruins of abandoned homes. The cobblestones leading to charming boutique hotels and rustic albergues. The most magnificent of cathedrals and the tiniest of roadside shrines. Go to see all these things you can only see when you walk.

Go for the green wine and the tiny beers and the espresso and the pastries and the octopus and the trout and the substantial free snacks. Go for the tapas and the three course pilgrim's menu. 

Go to renew your soul and go to remind yourself of what matters. 

Go because you want to walk your own way and go because there are many who will help you find the path. 

Go to feel solidarity with the generations who walked before you and those who will follow in your footsteps. 

Go to prove to yourself you can.

Just go.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Sagrada Familia

The light stops you in your tracks. Warm and joyous, sunshine through the red and yellow stained glass floods the immense space in the afternoon light. If you were there in the morning, the light from the opposite windows would stain the air cool blue and green.

But you are there in the afternoon. The light envelopes you. Your eyes are drawn upwards by the massive tree like pillars. As if you are in a magical forest with alabaster columns supporting a magnificent canopy of stone high above your head. So high, you cannot believe the ceiling stands with so little visible support in this vast space.

A small girl stands in the transept holding an Ipad. "It's St. Jordie's Day, Nana! All the girls give their boyfriends roses and their girlfriends give them books! There are roses everywhere!" She pivots excitedly to show her grandmother the church. I catch a glimpse of Nana's smile and I am struck by inexplicable emotion. I turn away from their moment- so intimate and so public.

La Sagrada Familia. The Holy Family. The church astounds you inside and out. It is Gothic and at the same time modern. The artistry and craftsmanship and the mathematical genius of its construction. From the ornate Nativity facade, covered in detailed and delicate carvings to the austere, almost fascist Passion facade that depicts the sacrifice of Christ with a spare brutality.

Decades ago I visited Glastonbury Abbey with my family. It took centuries to build. Once glorious, it now lies in ruins. "Imagine," said my mom. "Imagine working on something your entire life and knowing you would never see what it looked like when it was finished. That's faith."

Gaudi spent the better part of his life working on La Sagrada Familia. He was 73 when he died in a streetcar accident, the church just one quarter finished. Although he made detailed plans for his church, he knew he would never seen the final product which has an estimated completion date of 2026. 

What would Gaudi think today? Could he have known that the holy temple of his imagining would become a tourist attraction rather than a place of worship, visited by millions of people of all religions? Shared by a child with her grandmother in another land via technology? Or did he simply trust that the end result of his labours would be worth his sacrifice?  

Who among us can ever know what the end result of our work will be? Whether you are an architect, a teacher or a parent, it's impossible to know if your life's work will end up as an awe-inspiring basilica or a pile of rubble. Yet you get up every day and put one foot in front of the other and keep going. 

That's faith. 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


Those who walk the Camino know the value of the waymark. All along the way, the route is marked with the symbol of the scallop shell, yellow on blue, the rays of the shell pointing you in the direction you should go. Supplementing the scallop shell are actual shells, painted yellow, attached to trees and fence posts. Some adorned with just a simple name. In addition to the shells are yellow arrows, some neat and formal, painted onto walls and lamp posts and signposts. Or wooden arrows attached to stakes or nailed to trees and walls. Others spray-painted low on walls, on curbstones, on sidewalks and the very road itself. Painted by local residents, volunteers and city employees, the signs keep you on a path that is centuries old, leading you past churches and chapels and drinking fountains, to cafes and albergues and hotels. Installed with love to guide pilgrims on their way and keep them safe.

The walker soon learns to search out these marks, always looking ahead towards the next directional sign on highways and on country lanes, in cities and towns. Sometimes the signs disappear, especially in busy cities where there are distractions or businesses competing for the custom of the pilgrim. Rarely but annoyingly, businesses who have lost foot traffic when the route has been changed vigilantly remove new waymarks, crossing them out with black paint and redirecting the stream of traffic back past their bars and cafes. In a world full of conflicting roads, without the waymarks, peregrinos would soon be lost and confused. They would never find their way to their destination.

From one end of the Camino to the other, signs point the way. And when signs fail, the peregrino is encouraged by people who live along  the path, pointing the way, calling words of encouragement from the path, from farm fields, from the balconies of their homes. Although you do not share a common language, the calls "Santiago! Courage!" and " Buen Camino!" cheeer you as you walk, reminding you that you are never alone.

In the end, you arrive at your destination. Tired, sore, worn out from days of walking, you come to Santiago de Compostela under your own steam, but not all on your own. The waymarks left by hundreds of others have led you here. The path trod by generations of pilgrims has led you here.

And then you are done.

There are no more arrows. No marks to watch for. No signs to tell you which way to go. No one lays out a path or calls out words of encouragement.  The road you take is your own.

Perhaps the strength you gained from the road will guide you. Perhaps knowing that you never walk alone will give you comfort. Perhaps remembering that others have gone before will help you forge your way.

Perhaps the path you walk will serve as a guide for those yet to come.

Buen Camino, amigos. Walk well!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Early morning, Albergue

It's pitch dark when the rustling begins. Sleeping bags shoved into stuff sacks. Legs into pants, feet into socks,  gear into backpacks. The morning ablutions. Headlamps and cellphone flashlights dart into the darkest corners, checking nothing has been left behind. Evening pleasantries forgotten, not a word spoken.

You're one of the first out the door, closing it softly behind you. You forego the sleepy cafe across the street, taking one last glance at the village you are leaving, with its shuttered shopfronts and rainy pavements and grey silent church. Then it's uphill on an asphalt road past country houses still asleep, onto a woodland path beneath dripping pines, the rain gentle on your poncho.

Before long the older Dutch couple catch up to you, the petite wife in her high tech gear motoring ahead as she always does. The husband slows briefly to chat, introducing you to a pilgrim's song, its rhythm echoing the pace of the walk. Then he too is off, joining the wife, the two of them singing into the rain.

You enter a town. Everything closed. So quiet, dogs don't even bark. The sun comes out and for a moment you see your shadow. How much do you resemble the other pilgrims who have walked this same path? You, with your broad brimmed hat, your cloak-like poncho and your walking stick. You and thousands of pilgrims have walked this road for centuries, rising early with strangers, walking through the days. Knowing your destination but perhaps not knowing the reason you walk until days or even years after your journey has ended.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Quinta das Cancelas to Ponte de Lima

You walk past vineyards, tiny grapes just beginning to form. There are thousands of vineyards here in northern Portugal that produce "vinho verde". The "green wine", bottled while still fermenting, frothy, fruity, best consumed young.

Down farm lanes and cobbled paths you walk, low stone walls centuries old, mossy green, sprouting tiny pink and white asters. You walk past fields of purple wildflowers, the hills above yellow with Portuguese broom in blossom.

You walk by scenes that have played out for generations if not centuries by these same families. A wife watches her husband plow a field. Laundry is hung to dry. A man repairs a scarecrow. A mother pulls a child in a cart. Hay is stooked by hand.

Farm fields and vineyards give way to a forest path. A brook babbles below. A hillside studded with Cala lillies. Brilliant pink foxglove interrupt the green and white. Birdsong loud overhead.

The forest gives way to farmland, gives way to ancient hamlets, stone wall beside stone wall. Ancient stone churches and immaculate farmhouses and casas in ruins blend one to the next until you reach a cobblestone path. Grape arbours over top, their shadows intense under the Portuguese sun. The path becomes a riverside walkway alongside the River Lima. The magnificent arched stone bridge, Ponte de Lima, appears ahead of you. The city, beautifully restored. The river filled with rowers. Swallows. Music.

You have arrived.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Senda Litoral

To your left stretches the Atlantic, blue green and aquamarine, the colours you only thought you'd see in the Mediterranean. A sandy beach, soft sand broken up by rocky outcroppings, stretches as far down the coast as you can see. On the horizon, far, far down the beach, resort towers stretch upwards. Your destination. Kilometres away. Never seeming to get nearer.

To your right, wildflowers splash across the dunes. Flowers we in Canada cultivate in our gardens and hope they live. Here, they bloom wild. Gerbera daisies, portulaca, California poppies, oleander, calla lilies. Things you cannot name. White, yellow, brilliant pink against the deep green foliage. In the tidy yards, flowers we only see in floral arrangements. Bird of Paradise, orchids, amaryllis, proteus. Oranges fall from the trees to rot on the ground. Lemons bigger than you have ever seen.

Ahead the boardwalk stretches for more than 20 kilometres through sand dunes and past glass fronted cafes and modern apartments and ancient fishing villages, houses painted brilliant colours, where ship-builders build the "best sardine boats in the world."

Senda  Litoral.

The seashore path.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Things I Ate in Barcelona

Grilled watermelon and goat cheese. 4.5 stars
Caramelized pear torte, vegan. 3 stars
Mueller Priorat Crianza 100 stars
Bocadilla with Iberian ham and Brie 3.5 stars
Broiled Octopus 3.5 stars
Fried Camembert with Berries 4 stars
Paella 2 stars
Flammetart 4 stars
Tiny beers 4 stars

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Quality of Your Life

Social Studies Lessons for Kenney 4

What makes your life a good one? 

Back in the day, the majority of Canadians might have agreed that a good life was one with a well paying job for dad, a mom that stayed home and cleaned and cooked and raised the 2.5 kids in a 3 bedroom house, safety, freedom and three weeks holiday in the camper.
Me and my mom, Trail B.C.
Nowadays, now that we understand more about what people value, our ideas are different. Maybe it means mom working outside the home, or two moms, or a single dad, or a single person living happily alone, or a family with ten kids. Maybe it means living out of your van, as a musician I know does quite happily. Or living off the grid, in a colony, on the rez, or in a downtown apartment or surviving off the land. Maybe it means living in the frozen north or on a beach. 
Fort Resolution, 1988.
Maybe it means having lots of money. Maybe it doesn't.

For my neighbours, driving a quad through the waterways is something they love. Every time I see them, that makes me angry. I feel like saying "Get off your butt and walk somewhere, you lazy bastard! Quit destroying the natural environment!" Meanwhile they are probably thinking "What the hell is the matter with you? You live in the bush and you don't own an off-road vehicle?"  

Likewise I see huge families and I think "Why are you overpopulating the planet?" When the whole idea of overpopulation was something my family thought about long and hard before deciding on having a third child.  To the absurd point I asked my childless cousin if she would give me her "quota" of kids so we could have another child. And yet I know for these families having numerous kids is something they value deeply. Perhaps they don't feel the need to provide for their education or have a house large enough so each kids has his/her own room. I know many of them feel sorry for those of us with small families. They cannot understand why anyone would make that choice.
Cemetery, Sarajevo

Sometimes the thing that makes my life good interferes with someone else.What principles do we use to determine where we legislate to achieve the common good? A simple vote? A referendum? Majority rules? Charter rights? "Inherent" rights? 

The more connected we are in our globalizing world, the more these questions matter. We cannot go back to the past , much as people like Donald Trump and Brexit voters and Marie Le Pen would like. The good old days weren't that great for everyone. 

Now we understand what "quality of life" means, we have to navigate into tomorrow's complicated world and its unknowable future. And that means recognizing that we are all unique, yet connected. That means trying to understand other people's views. Otherwise we will allow for the tyranny of the majority, the oppression of minority viewpoints and a world in which some people's way of life intervenes with the rights of others.

Inequality in Mumbai's slums

Monday, 10 April 2017

Just what I always wanted

Every family has its stories. Some of them are told over and over again.

My mom was fond of repeating stories, even before the dementia set in.  One involved the first birthday party I ever attended, the fourth birthday of my next door neighbour Ricky Kent.

Ricky Kent in the cardigan, me, far left
The story went that Ricky ripped open a gift and loudly proclaimed, "Pyjamas! Lousy pyjamas!"  This led to my mom giving me a lesson about proper etiquette when receiving a gift.  "You never want to hurt the feelings of someone who has given you a gift.  No matter what it is, you smile and say thank you as if it's the one thing you always wanted."

Continuing on with this tale, my mom related what happened at my own fourth birthday party just a few weeks later. 

When it was time to open the gifts, no matter what the present, I smiled a huge phony smile and exclaimed,"Thank you! It's just what I always wanted!"  My mom told this story over and over, almost every time I opened a present. And over the years, that was a lot of presents. Hundreds of gifts-some "exactly what I always wanted." Some surprises, like the binoculars she gave me for my birthday when I told her my dorm room had an excellent view of the playing field but it was too far away to see the boys. Or the flying lessons she paid for when I turned 21. 

Image result for ribbon candyIn our family, we have some traditions when it comes to gifts. For instance, everyone has a "favourite" Christmas candy. Mine was icy cups. Granddad got peanut brittle. My brother, it was widely known, loved ribbon candy. It became almost impossible to find and family members felt they had scored a coup whenever they found some for Doug. Last year he told me he hated ribbon candy. Fifty years of ribbon candy. And he doesn't even like it.

Gift giving is hard.  Searching for the perfect something to show how much you care, no matter what the cost.  Hoping you get it right and it will touch their hearts. What you really hope for is that you will come up with a gift they never even knew they wanted until you gave it to them. Gift receiving is harder. Because, as my mom taught me, you must be grateful even if you hate the gift. Someone thought about you and that matters more than any gift.

My mom gave me a lot of gifts over the years. Things I wanted. Things I didn't expect. Gifts tangible and intangible. Life lessons. A way of being. I'm not sure I ever expressed my gratitude. She's not here to give me anything any more. But I know she knows.

This life I live might not be the one I imagined.

But it's just what I always wanted.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Textbooks Suck. Why do we keep using them?

Why are textbooks so terrible?

It's like they beat out anything interesting or fun about a subject. The drama and the injustices and the personalities and the emotions that shaped history. 

Sure, the modern day books are filled with pictures and sidebar notes and links to web content, but the actual material makes you want to poke a fork in your eye. The new ones are no more captivating than the old ones, as I discovered reading through this old textbook published by MacMillan of Toronto in 1920. It might even be less interesting. At least "The Story of the Canadian People" had colourful tales of derring-do like this little description of the fall of the Huron: 
"When the end came, it was before the onset of seven hundred, yelling, bloodthirsty savages that the walls of the fort went down. The gallant defenders, scorning to accept quarter, were cut to pieces"
Today's history books are more about explaining the past than telling its story. Even most online content is desperately dull. You can't just take some crappy content from a book and put it online and say it's good, even if you throw in a few 2 minute videos and an online quiz.

It's like the people who wrote these materials didn't understand what makes kids tick. Or even what makes their subject interesting. And yet they are usually written by teachers who I assume love their area of specialization and are excited about learning and teaching. For my own course writing- maybe it is not filled with drama and excitement, but at least I try to make the characters come alive and point out some of the atrocities of the past and the inequalities of the present. Why sweep that under the carpet?  As a teacher I met in Grande Prairie said the other day, "That pile is getting too big. We can't even walk on it any more."

Bill Bigelow, in his article "The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools",talks about the dull and lifeless way the stories of the past are told, describing "a curriculum bound for boredom".

The crazy thing is, history is NOT boring. Including Canadian history. It's alive! It's full of things that make you say "Whoa, what?" or "Are you kidding me?" or "Why didn't I ever hear that before?" or "That is just plain wrong, how did people let that happen?"

Imagine a party of inexperienced Northwest Mounted Police towing huge York boats up a powerful river, taking instruction from a captured Blackfoot slave. Imagine that same party, on its way to Willow Point to sign Treaty Eight, caught in a huge storm on Lesser Slave Lake, followed by an amazing sunset. 

Imagine One Arrow, stripped down to nothing but a loin cloth, announcing to the Treaty Six Party "I came into the world naked, but the Great Spirit provided for me. And now you are taking our living from us!"  

Imagine the drama of a fully uniformed regimental band marching into Blackfoot Crossing in a show of strength to announce Treaty 7 negotiations, only to find almost no one there. And a couple of days later, warriors in full war paint, charging through the same land, performing amazing feats on their ponies, countering with their own display of bravery.

Why don't we read that in the books?

Could it be because history is written by the victor so there are stories we don't tell? Are we afraid of getting some details wrong? Or do publishers feel they must remove the messy, uncomfortable and unpleasant bits? Why must we sanitize the hell out of our stories so their truths don't even matter? Could it be that publishers try hard to not offend? Do they fear backlash from politicians and community groups? Is that why they whitewash everything? At the risk of being political or controversial, our textbooks are nothing at all. No wonder kids find our history so dull. We haven't told them what it is.

Detail from Kanata by Robert Houle, an interesting take on the classic "Death of Wolfe"
Or is part of the problem the publishers themselves? Generally our publishers are huge multinational corporations like Pearson whose goal is not education, but turning a profit. Why would a multinational be interested in promoting anything other than the status quo? Why would such a corporation encourage critical thinking about political systems that invest power in the elite or economic systems that value profit before justice or a history that is sometimes painful to think about? 

Keep flogging old ways of thinking and it doesn't matter what colour of font you use or how many cool photos you incorporate. You will never touch the hearts and minds of kids unless you tell real stories that appeal to their innate sense of justice and curiosity.

And so far, I haven't seen a textbook that does that.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Top 10 reasons you know it's spring

Top Ten Reasons You Know it's Spring in Northern Alberta

  1. Your local paper features a photo of a goose on open water.
  2. The last of the ice fishing shacks is towed off the lake - by boat.
  3. You see a guy wearing a parka, toque and mitts and right behind him is another guy in shorts and flip flops.
  4. You have to give the dogs a bath every time they come in from the yard.
  5. You put your winter coats away even though it's ten below every night.
  6. It takes longer to get an appointment at KalTire than it does to see your doctor.
  7. Your kid loses a boot in the mud.
  8. You get to sit on your back deck and drink margaritas without wearing a jacket.
  9. When it snows you don't even think about shovelling-it's going to melt anyway.
  10. You get an email saying wildfire season has started.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Gibara Reflections

Sometimes a place you visit stays with you. Gibara is one of those places. 

On the evening of September 7, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall in Gibara, Cuba. 

Twelve meter high waves and winds of up to 209 km an hour lashed the coast, flattening homes, decimating crops, and turning whole communities to rubble. 70% of Gibara's homes were damaged, many ruined beyond repair.

Gibara  waterfront September 2008. Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
Gibara- "la Villa Blanca"-the white city- a formerly wealthy and elegant sugar port, known for its bohemian spirit and love of the arts, now a sleepy fishing village of quiet streets and aging colonial buildings. Crushed.

Along the waterfront February 2017
The government had evacuated all residents in the path of the storm. An estimated 2.6 million Cubans-25% of the country's population- got out of the way of the storm. In its wake, seven were dead and there were 7.3 million in damages, Cuba's costliest natural disaster.

After the storm passed through Cuba, it moved on to Texas.  There, residents refused to obey their mandatory evacuation order. Despite being a "first world country", despite warnings of certain death, 200,000 of those under evacuation notice refused to leave their homes. Of the 195 who died in Hurricane Ike, 113 were in Texas.

September 2008 Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
After Ike, the people of Gibara picked themselves up and cleaned up the mess and began to rebuild. They had very little in the way of international support. But they moved on with their lives, because that is what you do.

It has taken them years. 
Downtown Gibara today
Walk the streets of Gibara today and you won't see rubble. You'll see stately buildings,sea scoured and sun bleached. 

You'll see the charming colonial Hotel Ordona and the newly opened Hotel Arsenita, waiting for tourists. 

You'll see stained glass and brilliant paint. You'll find a quaint museum with its dioramas and an enormous whale skeleton. 

You'll find hilltop miradors and cafes with spectacular views. 

You'll find peaceful homestays with lovely courtyards and rooftop patios. 

You'll see the fabulous Cinema Jiba, home to the yearly "Poor Man's Film Festival." 

You'll find older people who smile and shake your hand and thank you for coming to their town with your tourist dollar. 

You'll see dignity. 

You'll see resilience.
Hotel Arsenita

On May 15, 2011, disaster visited Slave Lake. 130 km an hour winds and a massive wall of flame raced through my town. Thousands of people jumped into their vehicles and evacuated themselves without any public warning or formal evacuation notice. There were no deaths.  But the destruction was immense. 

More than 400 homes were lost in the Slave Lake wildfire-a far cry from the 43,000 homes destroyed in Cuba by Hurricane Ike. But unlike the Cubans, the people of Slave Lake had insurance. They had government assistance. My town had millions in donations from people around the world through the Red Cross and other agencies.  

The people of Slave Lake, like the people of Gibara, picked themselves up and got on with rebuilding. Because that is what you do.

Six years on you would not know anything happened in my town. We have buried the scars of our disaster behind the facades of our beautiful new houses and lovely landscaping and brand new public buildings. You'll see no reference to the wildfire, not even in the name of the Legacy Centre, built almost entirely with disaster recovery money.
Ruins along the seawall.

Not so Gibara. 
You still see its scars in the ruined concrete along the sea wall. 
You see the damages in the broken pavements and boarded up windows.
You see the history of their struggle written on walls still waiting to be restored.

Most of all, you see its spirit. 
The spirit of its people who are quietly getting on with life. 
Because that is what you do.