Monday, August 22, 2011

So long, Jack

I campaigned for Canada's New Democratic Party (NDP) as a teenager, in the riding then held by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Our big breakthrough was getting slightly more than 2% of the vote.

Over the years, my political orientation shifted to the right, but I always had a special place in my heart for the party whose members once sported buttons that said "My heart is on the left." Earlier this year, I even voted for them for the first time in 27 years, and I did so primarily because of the party's charismatic leader, Jack Layton. Hell, I didn't even know the name of the local candidate until I saw it on the ballot, and promptly forgot it until she was declared elected.

Jack Layton accomplished two things in that election that nobody expected. The party that had been struggling for a breakthrough in Quebec for decades took 59 of 75 parliamentary seats in the province, sending the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which had dominated federal politics in Quebec for two decades, to oblivion.

Largely because of that accomplishment, the NDP became the Official Opposition for the first time in its history. The future was brighter than it had ever been for the NDP and the man who had become the most popular politician in Canada.

Then, earlier this summer, he confidently told Canadians that he would be back when he stepped down from the party's leadership to battle cancer (which he had beaten once before), and few doubted that he would be.

Jack Layton died this morning.

As far as I can see, Jack may have been the last of his kind in Canadian politics; that is, leaders who are in it not for the money or the prestige or the favours they can hand out, but for what they believe in and the hope of achieving a brighter future. In my lifetime, I can think of only three others who merit membership in this club: Pierre Trudeau, Rene Levesque, and the NDP's own Ed Broadbent.

Today, my condolences go out not only to Jack's family and friends, but to all Canadians - regardless of our political leanings, we have all lost a national treasure today.

So long, Jack. We will miss you.

Two days before his death, Jack Layton wrote this letter to Canadians.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Going Postal - Canadian Style

For those who haven't noticed, there is no mail in Canada. It is not a strike, but a lockout. That's right, the post office closed itself down. For those who wonder how this could happen, I should point out that Canada Post does not use the slogan "Neither rain nor sleet..." or whatever it is. In fact, if Canada Post had a slogan, it would be, "What do you expect for 59 cents?" But I digress.

They are fighting over the usual suspects - wages, working conditions, benefits, and history. History, because the company wants to roll all of those back to the days of the early industrial revolution. I should point out here that I am not generally pro-union; I applauded WalMart when they closed their first ever store to have been unionized. However, these are exceptional times that call for exceptional opinions.

The union, in a rare stroke of brilliant strategy, started with rotating strikes, wherein various urban centres would lose mail delivery for one day at a time. This had the double benefit of not terribly inconveniencing the mail-receiving public at the same time as causing Canada Post major administrative headaches.

This (a public service union going after its employer without holding the public hostage) would not do, of course. So Canada Post did the only thing it could (other than actually taking steps to reach a negotiated settlement) - it attempted to provoke a full strike by announcing that mail would only be delivered three days a week.

When the union didn't bite, the company complained that its reduced service was costing it too much in lost revenue, so it did the logical thing and shut down altogether, because no revenue is better than some revenue, apparently.

In any case, the point of all of this has become clear to me. The current government has hinted at its desire to privatize the post office, an idea that has generally been met with a mix of raised eyebrows and instinctive disdain. By running itself into the ground, Canada Post will become a drain on the public purse, and thus a fair target to be a sacrificial lamb in some future round of budget cuts - the public will be less likely to oppose the sale of a money-losing crown corporation.

As a side-effect, this situation may turn out to be the best thing that little Stevie Harper has ever done for the environment - the vast majority of folks who will now use the internet to get around the lockout (for example, switching to online billing and payments) will not come back to snail mail, and this permanent drop in Canada Post's market will save countless forests.

My favourite part of the whole mess, though, has been the laughs, like the one I had when the company's CEO announced the lockout/shutdown at the same time as telling employees that he hopes they will come back to work soon. You can't pay for that kind of slapstick.

Oh wait, I guess we are paying for it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Elections, eh?

I'm sure that to most Americans, the only thing more boring than Canada is Canadian elections, and that's quite understandable. While Americans took the great step forward of electing their first black president in the last presidential election, we Canucks now have the opportunity of taking the great step sideways of re-electing a man with all the charisma of a piece of wood, or replacing him with another man with all the charisma of a piece of wood.

This differs from the last election in that we had a different another man with all the charisma of a piece of wood, and the previous one in that we had yet another different another man with all the charisma of a piece of wood. Of course we do have two major parties with radically different platforms - one, if re-elected, will take our money to benefit their friends in big oil, while the other, if elected, will take our money to benefit their friends in, well, just their friends.

Where Americans had to decide based upon the great issues of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, public health care, and saving millions of people's homes from foreclosure, we have to decide based upon the great issues of whether we will pay more taxes or pay more taxes, whether a major urban bridge should fall down sooner or later, and saving some members of Parliament (what we call Congress) from receiving a lifetime pension after only two years in office.

Americans get to see their politicians caught (literally) with their pants down in things like the blue dress scandal; the most exciting thing that has happened in the personal life of Canadian politicians in the last ten years was when a poor little rich girl dumped both her boyfriend and her party to accept a cabinet post from the other party, in what can only be termed the pinstripe slumber. Ironically, she lost her seat (if not her pants) in the next election when her new party went down to defeat, which is the only kind of going down that happens in Canadian politics.

Our good neighbours have presidential elections every four years that last for two years; we have federal elections every two years that last for about a month, which most of us find way too long. The longest-serving party leader is still known primarily for how silly he once looked in a hairnet while visiting a cheese factory, some 14 years after it happened.

American presidential candidates have included war heroes, movie stars, activists, lawyers, peanut farmers, and more; our Prime Ministerial candidates have included lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, and more lawyers. No wonder we keep getting screwed. And overbilled.

I guess these contrasts are what you get when you compare a country based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with one based on peace, order, and good government. Oh well, two out of three ain't bad.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cardboard Jesus

The ladies with Cardboard Jesus
I don't know if you've read Leon's, My Holy Land Experience Redux, or not, but I'd recommend it. For a Christian pastor, he has a certain sardonic flare that makes the heathenish contrarian in me stand up and shout, “Hell yeah, brother, preach on!”

And please forgive the ironic flippancy in my use of the phrase, “Hell yeah!” It's a Southern thang.

His pictorial exposé of the Orlando, Florida amusement park, I dare say, is potentially more enjoyable than an actual visit to the park itself. I haven't personally been, but my wife and daughter visited recently, on a school field trip, and they led me to believe it's not necessarily amusing. I came to that conclusion when my daughter told me, “It was alright, but I was glad when we left.” Not a glowing endorsement.

Leon and his son with a real life Jesus impersonator.

Like Leon, they took pictures, and like Leon, got a picture with Jesus, the only difference being Leon's Jesus was three-dimensional, while the ladies was only two-dimensional.  Egads!  Leon does a great job of pointing out the over commercialization that's rampant in Christianity today, and the obvious hypocrisy of making Jesus a marketable commodity on his blog, but at least he got a full bodied Jesus impersonator while the ladies only got a cardboard cut out!  What gives!

I did see a certain irony in their pictures of Jesus, one I could relate to personally. The contrast of Leon's Jesus to my wife and daughter's cardboard Jesus made me think about my own perception of him, and how it's changed over the years.

Like many Southern children, I attended Sunday School. We were taught Bible stories, like; Jonah and the whale, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus' resurrection. We sang songs, recited Bible verses, ate cookies and candy. We also got the hell scared out of us, leading us to repent of our plethora of sins and hoping to get our Get out of Hell cards, because Hell seemed really bad to us. I have to admit, I never really got much more out of church beyond that back then. It seemed Christianity was only about avoiding hell in those days.

It wasn't until I was an apostate adult that Jesus started to make more sense to me. When I actually read the Bible – and not just listened to someone else's rendering of it - and read the words ascribed to be Jesus', I became interested. The Jesus of the Gospels was a freakin' revolutionary radical that turned the religious establishment on its ear! He challenged the predominantly Pharisaical Judaism of the day, even going so far as to suggest he was the fulfillment of their religious laws! The idea that one was to love sacrificially appealed to me, as did the concept that that all people were equally loved by God. The more I read, the more I studied, the more I liked this Jesus. He was so different from the Jesus I'd heard about in Sunday School. Back then, I was taught to fear Jesus, but I realized I didn't need to fear him after all. I actually came to love him.

My family and I started to attend church in order to worship and follow Jesus. It seemed the natural thing to do. My wife and I both had conservative Christian backgrounds, so we gravitated towards that type of church. In hindsight, I know that was a mistake. It's amazing what happened to the Jesus I'd come to love once he was put through the grinder of conservative, fundamentalist Christianity. Once again, he became a Jesus to fear, as doctrine and dogma sucked the life right out of him. Unfortunately, I'd fallen into a world where evolution is considered pseudo-science, despite the fact that seven day creationism can't be supported scientifically, that the Bible is inerrant, even though that notion can be dispelled with a cursory reading, and that today's evangelical brand of Christianity is the only way to heaven, regardless of the fact that it's a relatively new religion that ignored history and it's own two thousand year evolution. I'd fallen into a world of myopic ritual and self-inflicted ignorance.

I have to tell you, fear is a great motivator, and it took me several years to completely reject that belief system, but I'm glad I was finally able to. Sadly, my religious life relegated Jesus to resemble the cardboard cutout in my wife and daughter's picture; flat and without depth, and utterly lifeless. Gone was the Jesus I read about in my Bible; he'd become the Pharisee to me. He was condemnation and conviction, not love; he was the establishment, not the revolutionary. I have to tell you, that realization sucked for me. Still does.

I'd like to get back to the Jesus I admired some twenty years ago, the one I read about, the one before religion took him away. He wasn't some supernatural entity that was beyond my ability to comprehend, like the one I'd come to learned about as a child, the one my church espoused. I like the revolutionary Jesus, the Jesus that loved everybody. I don't like Cardboard Jesus.

Well, that seems a lot to get from a couple of pictures, but there you go.  Christopher Hitchens says religion poisons everything, and while I might not necessarily accept that fully, I anecdotally understand it.  Religion certainly poisoned my perception of Jesus.  Still, I have hope I'll see him as I did once, unencumbered by religion.  And maybe I'll even admire him again.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How Does The Universe Work?

The Universe, it is said, works in mysterious ways. But does it? I'm not so sure anymore.

I used to believe that the Universe was entirely random, much like the googleverse, but I'm not so sure about that anymore either. I had a theory that so many things happened that by pure chance, some would seem eerily coincidental. The laws of probability suggest that every now and then, coincidences would converge to seem entirely uncoincidental, but this too, said my theory, was also random.

At some point, though, enough is enough, and maybe even too much. Sure, sit an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of Macbooks and they will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, but who can afford an infinite number of Macbooks? Not to mention that before they produce the entire works of Shakespeare, they are more likely to produce all the scripts from Hello Larry, the full repertoire of Journey, and the complete code for Windows ME. Okay, maybe that last one will only require half an infinite number of monkeys, and could probably work with baboons at that.

I should probably stop insulting monkeys before the good folks from PETA get on my case, so let's get back on topic here. Is there a point at which so many coincidences converge that it becomes unlikely that they are purely coincidental? Despite my earlier theory, I am inclined to think so. Without going into detail, which would just make me seem weird, I humbly suggest that the Universe is not quite as dumb as it seems, and this despite It having allowed a scenario where Sarah Palin is seriously considered as a presidential candidate.

I guess I'm going to have to go into some detail. By accident, I ended up somewhere that led me to random interactions that eventually inspired me to embark on an unlikely excursion that included an unpredictable series of events that later influenced me to follow an uncharacteristic course of action that brought me to an  improbable set of circumstances that resulted in something completely unexpected. If that's not a clear indication that the Universe has Its hand in things, I don't know what is.

The point is that the odds of all this happening the way it did are as unlikely as, well, monkeys writing Shakespeare. Yet it did, while the monkeys are still designing the next version of Internet Explorer. Add to all of those details some downright bizarre "coincidences" that relate to seemingly unrelated events and circumstances from the past, and even an infinite number of monkeys squared couldn't have possibly scripted something that obvious.

Does all this mean that the Universe has everything planned out for us? Of course not - then what would be the point? What it means is that the Universe gives us possibilities, and signs by which to recognize them. When we ignore the signs, we end up like the guy on his roof in a flood who asked, "Lord, I refused help because I had faith in you to save me; why have you left me to drown?" To which the Lord replied, "I sent you a ladder truck, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?"

When we see the signs, we are able to follow the path the Universe has made possible for us, and once we're on our way, every now and then it throws in another sign just to let us know we are headed in the right direction. That's right, the Universe speaks to us in subtext. Meanwhile, back at the lab, the monkeys are still pounding away at their Macbooks, spewing forth a new Panic At The Disco song from time to time, but still no Shakespeare.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Holy Land Experience Redux

This is a reprint of a blog post I made on my blog last year.  Enjoy!

I went to the Holy Land Experience yesterday with my youngest son, who happens to be five going on forty.  It was my first visit to the Christian-based Orlando theme park since the Trinity Broadcasting Network bought it some years ago.  I went, quite frankly, because my wife and older son went on a 15 day trip that included several days in the real Holy Land, and I promised my little guy we would one-up them.  Our mission was not to merely experience the Holy Land Experience as a means of one-uppance. We knew that wouldn't cut it.  Our mode of one-uppance was going to come when we got our picture taken with Jesus, which we were certain we would be able to do. The brochures and television ads clearly showed Jesus walking around greeting people in the park.  We decided that a photo op with Jesus himself would pretty much trump any ancient ruins that the other two members of our family visited.  In a moment of kindness I will include you on my little photo safari through the land of near-ancient Israel where the Crouch's are king, T.D. Jakes is THE MAN and an aging Dino still gets to play piano and make the old bee-hive hair-doe'd Pentecostal ladies swoon---Liberace style. 

The Holy Land Experience claims to be the one place in Orlando where you can literally go back in time and experience what it was like in ancient Israel.  I snapped the pic to the right at the entrance to the "Smile of a Child" area of the Holy Land Experience.  I am just spitballing here, but I am guessing that ancient Israel didn't have randomly placed trees filled with parrots and butterfly park benches guarded by grouchy Roman soldiers... or did they?

And this pic also begs the question, "Why place this rather imposing and scary resin statue at the entrance to the kids area?"  Is it a reminder that they should behave, refrain from naughty words and mind their teacher---who also happens to be their mom since they are homeschooled?

I wasn't feeling the random statue love.

Take this one for example, which was also discovered in the kids zone of the park.  I know that the good folks at TBN had the right idea---you know, the whole lion lying down with the lamb thing.  But why utilize what looks like a serious, regal prop from a Narnia exhibit when it comes to the lion and then bust out with a sheep from the Wallace and Grommit movies (or Serta commercials, whichever your prefer) to stand opposite him?

And what does the sheep seem to be saying here with his sideways glance?  "I know that things are supposed to be different now that we're lying down with lions, but I still don't trust the bloody thing."  

I guess that's the best way to describe much of what my kid and I experienced in the Holy Land Experience:  random.

Take a look at this pic on the right.  I snapped it in the kids zone along with the others.  It's Zaccheus up a tree.  But inexplicably there is this kangaroo right below him.

First, kangaroos are not indigenous to Gaililee.  Anyone knows that.  Second, why place it randomly in the Zaccheus story?  Is there more to the Zaccheus story than we saw at first blush?  Could this be Vince the Kangaroo, who was cut from the first draft of the story we find in the Gospels?  Maybe Zaccheus climbed the tree because he had sold Vince a sub prime mortgage and Vince was going to open up a can of kangaroo style whoop ass on him in retaliation.

Does anyone else but me think this is messed up?

This was the bean bag toss in the bizarre castle-themed area of the kids zone.  Yes.  It's the Devil.  You get more points for throwing the been bag through the whole where his heart should have been. 

I am seriously not making this stuff up.

The people at TBN have lots of money from all of those Carmen DVDs they sell on TV.  They should be able to afford something a little more interesting than this for kids to play with at their amusement park.

"Okay, Johnny, you've got three tries to make your beanbag go through the Devil's holes!  Miss more than once and you're damned to eternal retribution!  Ready, set, Go!"  

This is the Jonah in the belly of the whale exhibit.  There is a talking clam in the foreground.  You can't see it in the pic, but there is also a large octopus, a star fish and some sort of grouper.  All of them talk.  The octopus sounds like he was voiced by a white man trying to tell a Chris Rock joke and doing his best Chris Rock voice to do it.  Yeah, it was that racist.
At any rate, the little sea creatures are carrying on an endless dialogue about Jonah being in the belly of the whale.  Jonah occasionally will spout off Scripture in the King James version of the Bible in a cavernous, deep voice.

This is a straight-up Chuck Heston/Moses statue parting the Red Sea that is inhabited by happy little fish and dolphins.

Chuck makes a good statue.

You walk between the walls of water by the way.

It's pretty cool.

At least my five year old thought it was.

Okay, so did I.

Come on... it's Chuck Heston, for crying out loud.

Communion is celebrated every 15 minutes at this spot.

Jesus shows up to talk you through it.

They used grape juice.

People would get their early so that they could get a good seat.

Just like John did.

The suck up.

I found this door in the empty Garden Tomb.

It was next to the spot that the TBN people set up to look like where Jesus had been.

Theologically this door messes up a bunch of your belief system if you ponder it for a while.

I pointed it out to my kid, who is--as stated--five going on forty.  I said, "Look at that door in the back of Jesus' Tomb." he looks at it sort of nonplussed and says,  "That's where they store stuff."


My five year old took this picture to the right using my iPhone.  I was proud of him.

This is a photo site that was set up by the TBN people so that you can have your picture taken next to Jesus to look like you are walking on water like Peter.

If I look like I am calm, it's just because I am fully at peace in the presence of the Resin Christ.

Oh don't hate me because you ain't me.  It was too good of a pun to pass up.

And yes, these damn butterfly benches were everywhere. 

If you look really closely in the background of this photo you can see two mannequins that have branches and flowers in their hair like druids.

Yep. That's Adam and Eve.

They are hiding back there, looking all stoic.

But their ashamed.

Oh yeah.

A lot.

The picture on the right is of a statue of two monkeys sitting on a butterfly bench.  I don't know why they were on the butterfly bench.  I don't know what sort of Biblical or Holy Land type of purpose they served. 

They look sort of cute, though.

Or frightened. 

Or pretty dang creepy. 

Come to think of it there were lots of creepier things than these monkeys in the Holy Land Experience.  Like the maintenance guy who leered at us with blackened misshapen teeth when he told us directions to the restroom.  And then sort of followed us in there. 

And the video of Benny Hinn playing in the bookstore.

Okay, so the day wasn't a total loss.

We got our picture with Jesus. 

And some kind people from Jamaica took it for us.

I couldn't help but overhear Jesus tell the man who took our picture that "if there were more people like you in America, it wouldn't be in the shape it is right now." 

I bet it seemed weird for the Jamaican guy to hear that from Jesus. 

Especially since he looked like Loggins and/or Messina. 

Who cares.  Me and my kid got our picture taken with the man himself. 

Top that.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Troubleshooting in Arizona

Click here, then read.

Last week I went to my beauty spa for a 3:45 appointment, only to discover that I was a whole day early. Organized as usual. Luckily the laser hair-removal technician was able to work me in because somebody else hadn’t shown up. I was lying back on the table getting my mustache burned off when the technician said, “Did you know you only got this appointment because the girl who was supposed to be here is being held hostage at the Chandler Mall? Yeah, there’s this crazy guy shooting a gun off inside. She called on her cell and said she wouldn’t be able to make it because the whole place is on lockdown.”

I couldn’t react with much more than a groan because my entire upper lip was slathered with cold gel and the technician was electrocuting my hair follicles. I made a mental note to avoid the mall area—four miles from my home—until the gun-slinging hostage-taker was caught.

I prayed that a slaughter wasn't going on.

A few days later, I was eating lunch at my desk when news started coming in over Facebook that an Arizona congresswoman had been killed, along with several other people, in a shooting down in Tucson. What? It’s hard to process that information when you’re in the middle of grading another crappy essay from another badly educated teenager raised in Arizona. I hoped that the information trickling in was exaggerated or wrong; I hoped that people were just injured, not dead.

Throughout these days—as the Chandler shooter was arrested before he killed anybody, and the Tucson shooter was arrested after shooting Representative Gabrielle Giffords through the head, killing six others and injuring many more—my own daily work continued. It had to, just like shop owners have to keep their doors open and firemen have to keep putting out fires. In my world, editors and other writers kept up their own work too, hammering me with unsolicited advice: “You use the word ‘I’ too much. Stop focusing on yourself so much; try including your readers more by giving them advice. That way it’s not always about you.”

Okay then. In an effort to cut down on my use of “I” and to provide some words of wisdom, hear this:

Arizona needs to stage a Move-Out. This could be likened to John and Yoko’s Bed-Ins, but would require all Arizona residents…legal and not…to move out of the state. Take your illnesses and try again in a place that doesn’t make organ transplants impossible for people who need them but can’t afford them, where the hospitals have nurses who won’t talk about you like you’re already dead. Find a state where children are actually educated and not just pushed through, so they don’t grow up to resent their college instructors who fail them because they can’t write or do math. Pack up and search for a place where entire families and established communities are not chased across our nation’s border, back into poverty and a drug war. Take your small businesses—your loyalty to local sports teams…your scholarship and expertise, your club memberships and season tickets and love for live music in public venues—and start fresh where there are metal detectors in the right places. Let’s move back to the states we came from, where we used to feel safe and more hopeful.

Or, we can stay here and try to do better.

Get organized. Take an interest in our awful news and push for change in your area, whatever change you think would improve the shameful condition and reputation of this state. Write to your local members of congress and tell them that you’re unhappy, if they’re not in the hospital with a life-threatening head wound. Don't just sit around, complaining and blaming. Get moving and do something...without a weapon.

And if you live in Gabrielle Giffords’ district and lost a loved one last Saturday, or you're sitting in the hospital with an injured family member, or if you're just plain frightened, know for certain that the rest of Arizona and the entire nation is pulling for you. You are on our minds and in our hearts.