Taking to the Streets

I walked along the seashore to the pub, enjoying the fact that the days were longer and a whiff of spring was in the air. But still I wore a whole wardrobe from socks to shoes to jacket and scarf, envying those who could escape winter and the daily ritual of getting dressed. T-shirt, shorts, sandals. Those are my three metaphors for a sunny winter.

“Look at the lovely bluebells and over here the lilies of the valley are out and see there, the daffodils are coming up.” Clare’s excitement over the crop of colourful spring flowers was a perfect counterpoint to my monochromatic state of mind. My head was filled with images of all those young people out marching for a better world. And yet they are inheriting a ravaged environment, the possibility of an overheating planet, a political landscape that resembles a wasteland, void of fruitful and invigorating forms of life. I didn’t even want to think of the millions of refugees fleeing war and weather ravaged homelands, only to be turned away, drowned at sea or in the best cases swept to the fringes of western societies. “How wonderful,” I said, taking a sip of coffee, hiding my true feelings but I couldn’t fool Clare who gave me a pitying look. “You really should get some rose tinted glasses.”

I was hoping to get some positive vibes from my learned friend over a pint but before I finished taking off my jacket and scarf, Campbell or Camp to all who hold him dear, embarked on a track not unlike my own.

The march for our lives’ campaign is galvanizing a generation that feels betrayed by the generation that went before them, “ Camp said. I sat down and before I could respond he said: “The deafening muteness from the golf course at Mar-a-Lago was totally eclipsed by Emma Gonzales’ roar of silence. When she took the stage in front of hundreds of thousands of marchers on Pennsylvania Ave. she named the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting and then stayed silent for 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the time it took the shooter to massacre 17 students at her high school. Emma stood there with eyes closed and tears streaming down her face. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Yes, I saw some of that on TV, I said. “At 18 years old, Emma has become the face of a protest movement, along with her classmate Cameron Klaski, who calls Trump’s idea of arming teachers a ludicrous plot by the NRA to put 700’000 more guns in the hands of Americans.“

“Let’s hope this groundswell of activist high-school students will translate into votes in November and turn into a tsunami sweeping anybody from office that is not committed to gun control,” Camp said, looking out at the calm water of Gibsons harbour, which seems far removed from the violence ravaging the schools and homes of our neighbours to the south.”

“Keep the dream alive,” was my sarcastic response, “and what about the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. Did anything come of that?”

“Martin Luther King Jr’s granddaughter, only 9 years old, is keeping that dream alive,” Camp said. Her speech went something like this: “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, and I have a dream that enough is enough. That this should be a gun-free world. Period.”

“Even Paul McCartney marched along, having lost his best friend John Lennon to a senseless shooting, 37 years ago, not far from where this protest march took place,” I said, trying hard not to sound depressed. “I know, there have been over 30 mass shootings this years alone so far,” I added, ignoring my pint, which in itself was not a good sign.

“Whenever there is a mass shooting, first there is shock, then anger and then grief and then hopefully action,” Camp said. “But will any of these demonstrations really have any effect on our politicians or policies?”

“Not in Washington where Trump just hired two neocon warmongers to replace his secretary of state and security advisor.”

“I’m sure someone is listening and watching. These shows of dissent will have consequences,” Camp insisted.

“I hope so,” I said. “A year ago the women marched and now there is a record number of woman running for office. They call it the pink wave.”

“Except in Ontario where thanks to an arcane voting system the conservatives elected Doug Ford as their next candidate for premier. He is a buffoon, with no legislative experience, who is already boasting about his historically large victory coming in June. The Conservative machine is lining up behind him and he has a good chance to be the next premier of Ontario. Trumpism has arrived in Canada,” Camp said.

“Yes, sadly from Italy to the Philippines to Canada, traditional conservatism is being cannibalized by populism, a very worrying trend, hopefully offset by a new generation of young voters,” I commiserated.

“It’s Easter this coming weekend,” Camp said. ‘The book store will be open and hopefully we’ll get some tourists. When I was a kid we painted boiled eggs on Good Friday. Not much of that going on these days or is there? Muriel and Sophie also invited me for Sunday dinner. Not sure what to bring. Can’t very well bring painted boiled eggs.”

“Bring a couple of chocolate bunnies. Can’t go wrong with that. I grew up in the land of chocolate,” I said, “and at Easter we used to be swamped by chocolate bunnies, hollow, candy filled eggs and fluffy sweet pastries. Bakeries displayed whole castles, mountain scenes and even chocolate trains in their windows. At home we also painted eggs and then on Easter Sunday we smashed them against each other’s eggs and the unbroken ones were the winners. Then we ate chocolate and all the broken eggs until we were all sick.”

“You Swiss have strange customs? A bit medieval don’t you think?”

“You’re not enjoying your beer,” Vicky, our savvy waitress, pointed out. She materialized at our table with her pink streaked blond hair in a ponytail at the top of her head like a samurai, one hand on her hip and an empty tray cradled under her other arm. “I’ll get you a fresh pint but you must promise me to look around and to smell the flowers and enjoy the view. I want to see a smile on your faces.”

“You sound like Clare,” I said but quickly caught myself. “We were just talking about ‘The March for our lives’ last Saturday and smashing Easter eggs.”

“These teenagers are like the spring flowers,” Vicky said, “Fresh, colourful and so necessary but smashing eggs just sounds like a big omelette.”


Bad News and St. Patrick

I sat down across from my learned friend Campbell, Camp for short, town councillor and owner of ‘Cost Books’, his ‘non-profit’ bookstore and my partner in crime, if drinking a couple of pints at the local seaside pub can be called a crime. He’s also the only one who listens to my diatribes, since I reciprocate by lending his soliloquies a friendly ear. On this lovely second day of spring it was my turn to unburden myself from too much exposure to mind numbing non-sequiturs from the little screen and the printed news.

“Well Camp, I’m dying to hear what you think about Putin’s self-managed landslide win and Trump’s ongoing autocratic, narcissistic and nepotistic flaunting of the rule of law in the good old USA. His latest idol is the Philippine dictator Roberto Duterte, whose solution to the drug problem is to kill suspected dealers in the thousands with impunity; no questions, no trial, no defence. As far as I can tell, Russia is lost to the west and the US is lost to all except the gun toting, flat-earthers, who love his wrestling style of politics.”

“Apart from your being a tad judgemental, you probably watched too much television and I can only conclude that nothing has changed or indeed surprises me. The price of beer remains the same, the world still moves around the sun, milk curdles if left out in the open and Gibsons Harbour is still a work in progress. ‘The George’ is stuck in a frivolous lawsuit and local real estate is at an all time high.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It just kills me to watch and read the news these days. Like the fact that this year 65’000 will die from drug overdoses in the US alone, 170 average per day, thanks in no small measure to the doctors who have been prescribing opioid derivatives like Oxycodone for years with wild abandon. It’s all so depressing. Makes me want to stick my head in the sand and cancel my TV subscription, but covering my ears, eyes and holding my nose isn’t going to improve anything. I just feel so helpless and frustrated.”

“I don’t watch TV and I’m still pretty much up on the news but I try to concentrate on news that I can either have an influence over or falls into the category of history in the making. Putin’s win was all but predictable and has no semblance of democracy at work while Trump’s angry tweets from the porcelain throne will one day be viewed as an aberration of power and failure of a system,” Camp said, taking a long draught from his pint.

“Did you know he cheats at golf?” I asked.

Camp just shook his head. “You need to find something to make use of your mind before it becomes so inundated and saturated with banality and trivia that even a couple of pints couldn’t cure. It might even drive you to drink my friend and nothing is sadder then a fertile mind feeding on itself.”

“Have no fear of that,” I said, “Clare isn’t going to let me get senile before my time. You’re the only one I can bitch and gripe too. She wouldn’t put up with any of this. By the way did you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in a meaningful way?” I asked.

“If you’re referring to a few ounces of Jamieson’s, I am indeed guilty as charged. Good old St. Patrick never knew 1500 years ago that he unleashed one of the biggest annual booze fests in the western world when he converted the heathen Irish to Christianity.

“No wonder it drove them to drink.”

“I’ve read that he wasn’t even Irish,” Camp said. “I think his parents were Romans living in Scotland. He was kidnapped as a teen by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland to heard and tend sheep. He escaped to France, became a priest and returned to Ireland where he spent the next forty years preaching and converting. He used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the holy trinity and the unusual forth leaf stood for luck. “

“I knew I could count on you Camp to keep up with the important news. As for myself I don’t really like green beer.”

Just at that moment Vicky put down two green pints in front of us.”

“Left over from the weekend,,” she said, “they’re on the house.”

I wasn’t about to complain.

“Here’s to a long life and a merry one. A quick death and an easy one. A pretty girl and an honest one. A cold pint and another one!”







Progress and Enlightenment

Campbell was unusually serious this evening, looking out at the grey-green water below us. We’ve had some lovely sunny spring weather, cool but clear but Campbell or Camp to all of us can still see the clouds in the sky. He had already ordered us two pints knowing that I was not the tardy sort. “When you look at a cloudy sky with some blue patches to the west they look small and remote compared to the big grey clouds above us,” he asked and answered himself. “That’s an illusion. The blue sky is immense and stretches from horizon to horizon, like today, whereas the clouds will always blow away or dissipate eventually.”

“Usually after they drop their collective moisture first. Your point ?” I said, sitting down.

“What we see is not always what it is.”

“You’re full of wisdom but I still don’t get what you’re trying to say.”

“I’ve just come across a book by Steven Pinker, a Canadian psychologist at Harvard, called  “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” and he claims optimistically that as a species we are much better off today then say, just a few decades ago. Yes, here are forces at play that fight and obscure enlightenment every step of the way, sort of like the clouds obscuring the blue sky above.

“Let me guess; the usual suspects: Like populism, nationalism, religion and reactionary ideologies.”

“I guess I’m preaching to the choir. Pinker believes in the US’s First Amendment prohibition of an established religion, and any other attempt to make collective decisions based on parochial dogmas rather than universally agreed-upon reasons. He also points out that there are definite improvements to humanity thanks to electricity, refrigeration and vaccines. American homicides have plunged since 1992, and rates of disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy and dictatorships, when they are measured by a constant yardstick, have all decreased but then came Trump.”

“He doesn’t like Trump? What a surprise.”

“He suggests that the media’s focus on negative reporting aided the Trump campaign which exploited voters fears. And all those people who don’t support Trump are mystified by a republican congress, which sides with a president that undermines their maxims of free trade and diplomacy in favour of militarism. He quotes Obama who said in his farewell address how much we owe to progress and enlightenment and Macron who said in his inaugural speech how these values are under attack.”

“But don’t we live in a time of growing poverty, expanding wars and a worldwide rise in violence?”

“Not really. He blames our collective news media for much of this misconception. ‘News is about things that happen,’ he writes, ‘not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, ‘I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. Think about it: If you arrived in a new city and saw that it was raining, would you conclude, The rain has gotten worse? How could you tell, unless you knew how much it had rained before that day? Yet people read about a war or terrorist attack this morning and conclude that violence is increasing, which is just as illogical.”

“I know that us baby boomers had the best of all times with incredible economic and technological advances and growth in personal wealth.” I said, “but are we any happier than previous generations.”

“Not really,” Camp said, “according to Pinker, we have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the previous generation that went through the war or my grandfather’s generation that went through the depression but on the whole we’re better off. We still have 193 sovereign states that belong to the UN, the EU still functions, most countries try to avoid war, and there is flourishing world trade. There are exceptions of course like Russia, Turkey and Venezuela but on the whole it’s working.”

“Yes, Turkey is being dragged back to the middle ages by it’s radical mullah’s and Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic dictatorship. Not sure why the EU is sitting idly by while Turkish journalists are jailed for life and women’s right are flaunted in the worst ways,” I said, draining my beer while it was still cold. I hate warm beer.

“ And the US is also taking an increasingly nationalist course, with punitive tariffs and watch out for Pompeo, the new secretary of state, who spawned from the tea party. This does not bode well for the rest of the world,”

“Again, we’re just plain lucky to sit here in lovely Gibsons, being able to talk about all that’s good and wrong in this world, without being censored or even jailed for our views. Myself, like Pinker, still believe in progress and enlightenment, which is not a faith but a realisation that when people strive to improve their condition they will gradually succeed.”

Vicky must have overheard Camp spouting off. “I could improve your lot by bringing another couple of pints. All this serious talk must make you two thirsty. ”

“You’re right Vicky, as usual, I guess the next round is on me.”

‘Let’s raise a toast to the late Stephen Hawkins.”

“May you keep flying like superman,” I said, quoting NASA.




Leaders and Followers

“It looks like Old Man Winter has moved on, “ I said to my friend Campbell or Camp for sort, who was already settled in at our usual table, scanning a newspaper. “Anything new?”

“Just the usual chaos and tweets from the throne out of the White House. It’s pathetic really, but look no further than the populist win in Italy. Maybe it’s time for a revolution but this time it looks like the revolution is coming from the right. Protectionism, fear of foreigners, ‘not in my backyard’, bigger missiles out of Moscow, trade wars and military parades from Washington and ‘serious concern’ from Ottawa .”

“Yeah, it’s disconcerting ,” I said, but I put my hope in the youth. Any positive change will come from the millenials with the help of their mothers. The age of the Old White Man will soon come to a timely and biological end.”

“Nationalism is on the rise, from the USA to Britain, from Italy to Austria.. Only New Zealand and Switzerland are social democracies it seems, where the common good and disinterest comes before personal satisfaction and where compassion and altruism are still desirable virtues.”

“It all comes down to leadership,” I said. “It’s the art of motivating people towards a common goal. A good leader is able to inspire others and communicate in a way that engages them to follow and act on his or her behalf..”

“That pretty well includes everybody from Ghengis Khan to Trump, and all the bad guys in between,” Camp retorted, “ a good leader is honest and inspires trust and respect, not fear and loathing and is good for the community and the greater good not just hubris and self-aggrandisation and conquest.”

“A modicum of humility doesn’t hurt either. Sounds to me like you would make a good leader,” I said.

“I may have the ideas and skills but I don’t have the personality and most importantly I don’t like being in the cross-hairs of public opinion. I like to be on the sidelines, watching the parade, not leading it.”

“So you’re not going to run for mayor? That would be a shame Camp. You wouldn’t be on TV or in need of a bodyguard and press secretary. It would double your income and you already spend a lot of time advocating for our little town.”

“Is this an official endorsement or did Muriel talk to Clare ?”

“Clare did say to me that you would be a good and honest mayor and a benefit to our community.”

“I could use the extra money but that would be a bad motivator. There are few good leaders but legions of followers. There is also the head bull or sheep who leads the whole herd over the cliff as Hitler did, or there is the leader who brings his flock from the dark into the light like Mandela.”

“Yes, but there are thousands of community leaders from teachers to nurses, from volunteers to small town mayors who do not shake up the world but make a difference in their community or even family. Not every leader has to be a pope or a king, a conqueror or a billionaire and you don’t have to be Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa. Just be Campbell for Mayor. Integrity, Honesty, Humility.”

“Yeah, you forgot: Broke, Old and likes Beer.”

“Not the worst of attributes. Better than: Rich, Old and likes young girls.”

“You’re right about one thing. This world is in dire need of some visionary leadership and I don’t mean only the political kind, I’m talking about the environment, food politics, resource management and equality for all. There are plenty of eager followers, looking for direction and inspiration. I know what you’re saying. We have many bright minds who know what’s good for us but more often than not they are silenced and even killed. These days the power is in the hands of a few with the most money and people power is suppressed and manipulated at every level, from the voting booth to the class room.”

“Yes, but Camp all the information, good and bad, is out there, on the internet, in the libraries, even in the pubs. I have great faith in our youth. They may not have the best music but they do have the best communication tools. Like Vicky here. I bet you she knows more about the state of the world than both of us with all our books and old ideas.

“You two fellows watched the Oscars last Sunday?”

Both Camp and I looked at each other and shook our heads.

“The ‘Shape of Water’ was filmed in Hamilton and Toronto, and won four awards and Frances McDormand gave the best acceptance speech in years. Two more pints for the road?”

“See what I mean,” I said as Vicky went to fetch our refills.



















I stopped by at ‘Coast Books”, Camp’s bookstore, because I wanted to order a travel book on Finland. The store loomed empty and Camp was leafing through some bills.

“Pretty quiet day?” I asked, instantly feeling stupid.

Camp looked up and said: “Is a grave yard quiet, is it quiet at the north pole? I could point out that the only customer today was myself because I didn’t want to have a zero day. Looks bad on the books but now with you here I have two customers.”

“Come on Camp, I’ll buy you a pint.”

“I’m not complaining, it is after all my choice to run this store. I could just as easily apply for a job on the ferry or at the pulp mill. We make our choices and then try to live with them.”

We bundled up and briskly walked down to the pub, which was just as quiet as the bookstore. Vicky was leaning on the bar and greeted us with a big smile. “I knew I could count on you two,” she said.

“You probably could have stayed home,” I said.

“Yes, but then I made the choice that it’s easier to be bored at work then in my cubicle and it’s a better view and company here,” she said.

Choices. We all have them. Usually it’s between at least two options: left or right, stay or go, buy this or that or not, answer the phone, the door or the mail or not. Choose between red, blue and black or yellow, green or white. We sat down and I chose to pursue the subject. “We have choices. It’s what makes us human,” I said.

“Yes, we choose because we can,” Camp said, “but do the poor of this world really have any choices. Choices seem to be the privilege of the rich and do women in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan really choose to wear the niqab or the burqa?”

“They have a choice to wear it or not but the consequences could be severe. Ultimatums are not choices. To confess under torture or be shot is not a choice and some choices are forced on people,” I said, like when you’re under assault. You can choose to stay or die or run for your life. I know this sounds extreme but if you’re stuck in a war zone these choices are real and as for the poor they do have limited choices like eat the bowl of rice or share it”

“You’re reaching here,” Camp objected. “When you’re starving in a refugee camp you’re lucky to get a bowl of rice, sharing it is not a choice but a requirement. That’s the beauty of living in the ‘free and rich world’. We can make choices others are denied in repressive and war torn societies, but nobody chooses to be poor except some wacky saints, and nobody chooses to be homeless and sick.”

“And falling in love is not a choice either.” I said.

“True, but you can choose to pursue your infatuation. There are circumstances which limit choices and sometimes we make foolish ones which result in unfortunate or even catastrophic outcomes.”

“And we choose to forgive and forget,” I said.

“We can forgive but we’ll never forget. Memory is not something we can choose. We may not remember an incident but something like a smell, a sound, or a word can bring it back like when Muriel talked about the Olympics and what we remember. Not who won the gold but we both remembered Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsled team.”

“When I was young the personal choices were many, so many I hardly new which way to turn, but as I got older the field narrowed and today the choices seem simple in comparison to immigrate, marry, have kids, move, buy a house, quit jobs, divorce, remarry, go back to school, buy a restaurant, travel. Today it’s much easier,” I said, “since most of my life-defining choices have already been made. Now I have dilemmas: like to choose between wine or beer for dinner, watch TV or read a book, go on holiday or stay home.”

“You’re a lucky guy but I almost feel sorry for you. Big choices are exciting like I’m thinking of running for mayor next year or pull up stakes and move to a warmer climate, like Costa Rica or the Caribbean. Not: should I put yogurt in my cereal or not, or stay up late and watch a movie or not. I still have a life to live,” Camp said adamantly, downing the remainder of his pint in one long draught.

“Ok, I get it, has this something to do with Muriel?” I asked, did she ask you to run for mayor and now you want to run away to Costa Rica?”

Camp just grumbled something unintelligible and he was saved an explanation by Vicky, who appeared at that very instant with a life-defining query. “Do you boys want another pint or not?”

“Is the pope catholic?” Camp said with a mischievous grin.