True stories in basic decency

I need help. I am disheartened by the tone of political discourse. There is too much anger out there. Way too much anger. 

I don't want to fight political battles any longer. Twitter brawls don't interest me. 

Here's what does: Humans being decent. 

I don't believe social media represents real people nearly as much as it does. I believe real people - the majority who aren't engaging in political fights online - are out here doing their best to be decent most of the time. 

And I want to highlight that. This is where you come in. 

I have started a Facebook page for people to share true stories of human decency. It doesn't have to be spectacular; I'm not looking for heroes who risk their lives to save the orphans from plunging to their deaths because Evil Dr Pork Chop has blown out the train tracks. I'm looking for business owners who go out of their way to help someone, for neighbours who do something nice, for drivers who wait patiently for the incredibly slow toddler to cross the street before making a right turn. Just ordinary people doing decent things. Or a politician saying something nice about an opponent. That'd be awesome, too. 

I want you to help me find those stories and share them to that Facebook page. It can be something you came across online, or something that happened to you or that you witnessed, and that you write yourself. 

The stories should be true, to the best of your knowledge. They should contain absolutely no political attacks and no negativity. And please don't use individual people's names without checking with them first, because that's the polite thing to do. 

Help me fight hate with love. Find stories we can all share. Let's flood Facebook with examples of real normal humans being good to one another. So we can have something to smile about as we go through our day trying to be better than we were yesterday. 

Check out the page. I've added a couple of stories to get is started, and I will post as many as I can find. But I'm just one person. I need the power of the crowd behind me to make this work. 

So there, crowd. Over to you. 

Who I am not

This is something I've been meaning to say for a while - since the presidential campaign last year. I have even been thinking of writing a book about it. The election of Donald Trump, and now the violence in Charlottesville, are making a lot of people very uncomfortable, to say the least. 

I feel I need to say something because for many years I was associated with "the right" (however defined; everything from libertarian to classical liberal to more-or-less conservative). Seeing events unfold in Virginia, and articles like this, I have this to say: 

If these people are on the right, then I'm not. More generally, if Donald Trump is considered to be on the right, then I'm not there either. I find those people and the opinions they hold repugnant (yes, including the president), as much as I dislike Marxists and other groups considered "far-left". 

I am not a Christian. I'm not religious at all. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I don't care what god(s) people worship, provided their dog is the better for it. Other people, too. I believe in the dignity of human beings, and I want to rush to the defence of anyone targeted by thugs - from the right or from the left. I am very much gay-friendly and I couldn't care less which bathroom people use. 

My family life is what you'd consider old-fashioned by choice (despite a terrible experience as a child of a very traditional marriage that included repeated beatings until I was big enough to hit back, at which point they magically stopped), and it's certainly not something I need to impose on others. I don't care what arrangements people have, provided they remember that kids never asked to be here and that their needs matter more than our own - at least for a while. 

I wish no woman felt the need to end a life growing inside her. But I wouldn't put her in jail for it; for I believe the experience is punishment enough. 

Identity politics is a poison that can affect anyone. I know. I was once in its grip. If you don't watch out, it can seep into your soul and carbonize the soft and precious bits you have inside. 

I don't want to be put in a box. I don't want to be on the left, and I don't want to be on the right. With a little water and sunlight, I can grow wherever I choose and hopefully, one day, recover my soft bits. 

Free your children from the pointless drudgery of summer camps

My idea of summer camp: wilderness, lots of free time, and not too many screens

My idea of summer camp: wilderness, lots of free time, and not too many screens

People who know me well will not be surprised to read this piece of mine Mercatornet just published. But I hope they'll still enjoy it! 

It only stung the first dozen times or so. “Mom,” they said, “you’re weird. You don’t let us do the same things our friends are doing.” Indeed I don’t… and when I do, I often regret it.
For instance a few years ago when the eldest of my homeschooled daughters complained that I wasn’t enrolling them in summer camps like all the “normal” moms did. At the time the kids were five, three and one. I had full-time job working in morning television. My husband worked at the same TV station afternoons and evenings, which meant the girls were home with at least one parent.
“You don’t need to go to summer camp,” I explained. “Summer camps are for kids whose parents work regular hours and need a place to park their offspring when there’s no school to send them to.”
Eventually I relented and signed up the older two for a week-long half-day ballet camp. And what a colossal waste of time that was. (And money.) Each day they came home rattled and exhausted by the organized group games and relentless pace of same; apparently it’s a Rule of the Universe that day campers have to be kept hyper busy at all times. But the worst for them was that they didn’t learn any ballet at all.
It wasn’t because the school was lousy. But summer camps force everyone to level things down, because they’re only good for business if the number of campers is high enough to make it worth their while. With a high camper-to-teacher ratio, the only activities that make sense are group ones in which each individual kid learns very little.
I’m not blaming the dance school; businesses do what makes sense to them. But I do think parents ought to make different choices, and not just because it’s silly to spend $400 a week to have your darlings play buddy ball.
I have nothing against summer camps where kids go to a cabin somewhere wild pretending to like carbonized marshmallows and pooping in a hole. Those camps are awesome, and so are specialized camps for very serious and already committed kids who want to hone their artistic or athletic skills with highly respected champions and low student-teacher ratios – assuming you can afford it. What I don’t like are the generic, “no experience necessary” day camps run by easily overwhelmed teenagers. You know, daycare pretending it’s soccer.
I know parents have the best of intentions. They want their children to be exposed to a variety of activities and interests, because they believe it increases their chances of getting into the right colleges and finding employment that’s both fulfilling and lucrative. Wouldn’t want the kids to “waste” their time in the summer now, would we? Yes but.
Just last week the New York Times reported on a story about Asian-Americans suing Harvard for rejecting them despite all their achievements in favour of what they claim are less deserving students from other minority groups. The Times interviewed Michael Wang, among others, who couldn’t get into most Ivy League colleges even with a plus-que-parfait resume combining crazy high academic scores with all the right kinds of extracurricular activities, including years of piano and being in a choir that sang at President Obama’s inauguration. (You can hear him tell his story in the audio section of this article.)
I wouldn’t call his a misspent childhood. Children do need to be exposed to a wide variety of activities and interests. But trying to maximize every minute of their lives in highly structured situations where they are prevented from failing and learning tough lessons, and never have free time in which to exercise their imaginations and learn self-direction to avoid boredom, is not the answer. Summer camp kids do get exposed to golf, soccer, karate, or drawing, but their exposure is at best skin-deep and the pace is too frantic. It’s a lot of not much for the money.
To become the best version of themselves they can be, and be successful according to their own parameters, children need freedom to play, discover and imagine. They also require a healthy dose of empathy on top of a solid academic foundation. Children need freedom from the drudgery of highly structured activities. They need long unorganized hours to run around, play outside in the dirt, get their knees scraped, catch bugs, and learn real cooperation, problem-solving skills and responsibility.
Better summer activities for them would be to help those in need. Every town and neighbourhood has a list of service projects in need of volunteers; everything from cleaning up public parks to spending time with the elderly or running errands for the bed-ridden.
Giving children a summer of freedom punctuated by genuinely helpful projects would require most parents to rethink their own schedule. Maybe they need to take more time off, maybe they can get together with a few other parents and arrange for each one to take the others’ kids for two weeks. Obviously this kind of overhaul takes time and effort – and possibly a few sacrifices as well. But the payoff is real and not just for the kids. And so are the savings.
After that one experience with the ballet school I swore off summer camps in favour of plain old free time and volunteering. When my kids want to explore something new, we find sources of information (books from the library, online tutorials, videos), get supplies, and get cracking. Not only are they learning at least as much about their new interests as other kids do in summer camps, but they’re also learning to teach themselves new skills instead of relying on someone else to spoon-feed them knowledge, which is bound to come in handy later in life.
I am pleased by the results so far, and now when they call me weird I smile.

In praise of pluck

My cheerful patient, experiencing the luxury of adapted shopping. Thanks for those amazing carts, Loblaws!

My cheerful patient, experiencing the luxury of adapted shopping. Thanks for those amazing carts, Loblaws!

It was going to be the perfect weekend. I would be alone in the house, with only the dog and the cat, for four days. Four days. Alone. In my house. By myself, I mean.

Husband was taking the kids to his brother’s place on Georgian Bay, like he’d done the previous year, for the August long weekend. And I wasn’t coming because 1) not super wild about outhouses, 2) not super wild about crowded cottages on long weekends, and 3) super duper crazy wild about being left home alone for four entire days. I didn’t care that I’d have no car (we are a one-car family), because I have a bike, a buss pass, and money for Uber, and I had all the supplies I needed anyway.

They left Thursday morning. By 5 pm I’d washed all the beds and cleaned the whole place from top to bottom. It was unrecognizably clean and organized, and I was a happy, sweaty mess. Beer, light dinner, glass of wine, a little Netflix, in bed by 10 to read. Asleep by 10:15. Perfect day.

The phone rang a little after midnight. Husband telling me Middle Daughter (8) had had an accident and they were on their way to the hospital. She’d fallen through the open trap door in the floor and crashed onto a plywood table in the room below. Serious cut, needs stitches.

If you’re wondering why nobody thought to close the trap door in the living room floor for the 7- and 8-year-old visitors (my eldest was at a different cottage with her cousins), you’re not alone. Oh, they closed it after. But, you know the thing about barns and horses? Yeah.

They did what they could for her leg with whatever first-aid material they had on hand (gauze, towels and a cardboard box, I gather), and headed to the boat. One brother-in-law drove, the other brother-in-law navigated, while husband held the child.

The boat ride takes a solid 45 minutes across Georgian Bay. Daughter didn’t like the waves, much. They hurt her. But there was no choice. They reached one brother-in-law’s parents’ place, jumped in the car, and drove to the Midland hospital.

How big is the cut, I asked.

About eight inches. I cried. I felt terribly guilty not to be there to hold my baby. And angry. Angry that such a stupid idiotic entirely preventable accident had happened. I did my best to hide all this. I spoke with her and she was amazingly cheerful, which made me think that possibly the cut wasn’t that bad and that a few stitches would indeed be all that was needed.

I asked my husband to take a picture of the cut and send it to me. He would when they got it unbandaged for the doctor, as soon as possible. It came at nearly 2 am.

It wasn’t a cut. It was a very wide, and very deep gash. About eight inches long, about three inches wide, and so deep the muscle had to be repaired. On my phone I could see the fibre in her exposed quadriceps. I spoke to her again and she was still in good spirits. Yes it hurts, she said, but I’ll be fine.

Don’t ask me where she gets that kind of strength. I’d have freaked out had it been my quads on such gruesome display.

Husband said the emergency doctor had recommended waiting for the surgeon to fix the wound. He was due to come in at six am and they would wait for him.

Right, I thought. What do you bet they don’t wait…

It’s the middle of the night and I’m six hours away in Ottawa with a dog, a cat, and no car. I would have to get myself out there Friday. That would mean renting a car and spending a long-ass time driving it in holiday-weekend cottage traffic. I would need all the rest I could get. So despite how upset I was I forced myself to close my eyes and go back to sleep.

Got up at six, to a text from my husband informing me that they’d woken up the surgeon and surgery was already over. She’d had to be put under for it, and was now recovering. She’d had her muscle fixed up, about a million stitches, a long series of staples, and a drain. I called him. He hadn’t had much sleep and was not at his sharpest, understandably. He said something about maybe taking her back to the cottage if they discharged her that day.

The foot came down. No way. I’m coming to get her. I’m not letting her get far from a hospital for a while, because complications do happen and so can infection. With that kind of wound on such a small body, it wouldn’t take much to generate another crisis.

He sounded relieved to hear me say it. He was trying to find a way not to ruin my weekend of peace and quiet, which I appreciate. But it was too late at this point.

I made a couple of calls to the car rental places around my house and sure enough nobody had anything. The Friday of a long weekend is not a great time to rent a car at the last minute. I would have to go to the airport. Found something there (at a steep price, thanks very much), Ubered my way to YOW, picked up my ride, and came back home to grab my overnight bag in case the hospital kept her an extra day, some clothes for her along with an ipad, blankets, pillows, and the dog.

I got to the hospital just after 3 pm, to news that the surgeon had agreed she could come home with me. She was sitting in her ICU bed eating freezies. She had thrown up that morning, and the frozen treats were staying down, so the nurses agreed to let her eat a few. She was looking about as good as anyone can in the ICU, and said she wasn’t in too much pain (yay drugs). Then she apologized for having gotten hurt.

Oh no, baby. You have nothing to be sorry about. I hugged and kissed her as much as she would let me. I’ll take you home tonight, and we’ll make you better. Say, want to go see a movie tomorrow?

She was disappointed to miss the cottage weekend, but this could not be helped.

It took about three hours to get the discharge paperwork done, for the nurses to show me how to empty her drain, change her dressing and clean her wound, for the pharmacy to cough up the powerful antibiotics she’d have to take, and for me to drive husband back to brother-in-law’s parents’ place so he could head back to the woods and the other two kids. We got home just past midnight. She’d fallen asleep shortly after 10 and I was so jacked up on caffeine my back was seizing up. But we were home. I got her to bed, put stuff away, drank half a glass of wine, and collapsed.

This little kid stayed cheerful and positive the whole time. She’s walking around (slowly, not far), and not complaining much except during dressing changes. Those are painful. Otherwise she swallows her ugly big pills without a fuss, and does everything I ask her to do. Well, except for picking Dunkirk as the movie, as I was hoping she’d do. She insisted on Despicable Me 3. I fell asleep and missed the ending, but she was pleased as punch.

She’s only eight years old and she just had her leg burst open, and there she is showing me how to cope with unexpected problems. You bet I’m taking notes.

Why reforming the labour code matters

I have written about these issues a great deal, way back in a previous life, and I am thoroughly delighted to see that the new French president (not overwhelmingly known for being a right-wing radical) is keen to reform the Code du travail.

About time.

No, it's not about taking rights away from anyone, or making it easier for bad bosses to mistreat anyone. It's about removing the straightjacket that's keeping people (employers, employees, artisans, artists, entrepreneurs, stay-at-home moms with a side hussle) from trying things, failing at things, and succeeding at things.

The French labour system is vastly different from the North American union model, and it's dangerous to draw too many comparisons. But on the Canadian front, I have said for years, and I maintain to this day, that with one simple change you could jumpstart the entire economy (not that it's dying, but bear with me) and make it exponentially more effervescent - in a good way.

That change? Making union dues voluntary instead of mandatory. That's it. Within five years, you'd see major changes, most of them positive (except for a few union officials here and there who might find themselves looking for a new gig). I wish one day someone has the guts to try it. Like, say, a young, popular, charismatic non-right-winger. We wouldn't happen to have anything like that around here, now would we?


The power of a single petal

Today's quote comes from Alain de Botton's deeply enlightening The Course of Love (page 207):

The love of flowers is a consequence of modesty and an accommodation with disappointment. Some things need to go permanently wrong before we can start to admire the stem of a rose or the petals of a bluebell. But once we realize that the larger dreams are always compromised in some way, with what gratitude we may turn to these minuscule islands of serene perfection and delight.