Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Skin Deep Reporting - Bone Deep Issue

On Monday, Sue-Ann Levy, a reporter for the Toronto Sun, wrote an article damning the renewed presence of dozens of homeless on Nathan Phillips Square. She was critical of the programs addressing the issue, and called for enforcement of the "No Sleeping on the Square" bylaw that is not being enforced.

It was a typically sad demonstration of the politics and journalism of Optics. Levy's piece is essentially a rant against a social ill that dares to manifest itself in public, and on the doorstep of City Hall, no less. There's certainly nothing wrong with lamenting a social state of affairs that generates this phenomenon on our city streets. The unfortunate part is that Levy's attention is on the visibility of the problem, rather than on the problem itself, which is the existence and the condition of these homeless citizens in a wealthy society that has yet to solve the problem of homelessness.

An important admission to make at this point is that I work for Toronto's Streets to Homes program, a program which Levy's piece refers to as "overpriced", and which she suggests is ineffective. But where is Levy's research? Did she attempt any exploration as to who these homeless are? Or of the fate of the previous, homeless occupants of the square? Had she done so, she might have reported on the successful housing of dozens of people over the years, and she might have wondered why more homeless keep appearing.

And, as to the most chronic and longterm of our homeless, she might have posed a question or two about better tools to address their very real needs. Instead, she ridiculed the efforts made to provide comforts to the homeless, and advocated persistently that they be removed from sight.

Ms Levy might also have refered to some of the research, conducted last year as part of Major Ford's budget process, , that recognized the budgetary savings and social benefits that derive from the current housing approach.

Ms Levy is absolutely right to recognize that the problem of homelessness is far from being solved. But lets continue to refine the tools already in our possession, and seek to develop new and more effective ones. Let us not merely force those who are most visible from the reach of our offended eyes. They, and We, deserve better than that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Convention Wisdom

I've been absorbing the Republican and Democratic political conventions through the past fortnight, flicking on the television every weekday evening and catching the last 2-3 hours of speech-making, politicking and grand-standing straight through. I love that I found C-PAC and got my conventions without the narration of commentators, however much insight they may share about background maneuvering and hidden messages. I'm hugely partisan in this race, as sensitive to the differences between the parties as I've ever been, and as certain as many times before of the divergence in the paths the US faces, depending on the outcome in November.

It's unending of course, this schism between the two main parties in American politics. But through much of my life, the choice in Presidents has seemed to me only a bit more consequential than a Tweedledum-Tweedledee reckoning, so far as they way American lives were going to be lived. But, particularly since Reagan's election in '80, the effect of the way the country is steered has appeated to take on greater importance.

I know that there are different America's. I've lived mostly on America's coasts (or out of the country altogether). But I've spent enough time in the South and Midwest, and have engaged with enough conservatives in other vicinities, to understand how fundamentally differently Americans see their relationship to the nation and to one another. If I had to boil it down, I'd say that one of the core differences lies in how we judge the characters of those fellow citizens who are like us, and those who are not like us.

I think that the politics and principles of conservatives reflect, by and large, a conviction that "my kind" of people are strong, resourceful, independent and dependable, and that the other kind are weak, lazy and immoral and need to be watched with extreme suspicion.

And I think that the politics and principles of liberals reflect, by and large, a conviction that "my kind" of people are caring, creative, smart and communal, and that the other kind are brutal, selfish and hypocritical, and need to be watched with extreme suspicion.

And of course, I think that I'm on the right side, for the right reasons, and that I totally 'get' where the other side is coming from. And my side being the liberal side of the equation, I try to compensate for my tendency to think I'm smarter and more caring than those who vote differently than I, and that they are narrow-minded and greedy. Naturally, I can't be an impartial judge as to how well I manage that.

I think I manage it well enough though, to be impressed with the Republicans' lauding of the virtues of entrepreneurial spirit, and their warnings against a culture of entitlement. And I was likewise aware of the Democrats' over-selling of Obama's achievements and their demonizing of the opposition's moral intent.

But all-in-all, for 3 days and beyond, I worried over the Republicans' blasting of Obama's every act and intention. I feared they were having an effect, succeeding in eroding the faith of those wanting to stick by Obama. I thought back to 2004 - certainly the low point in my estimation of the American electorate's judgement. I was befuddled back then, absolutely not getting how we could send George, Jr. back for a second term, after years of ineptitude and unprincipled action.

But as the Democratic gathering in Charlotte got going, I was rejuvenated. Just as 2004 was a low for me, 2008 had been a huge endorsement of my fellow Americans' wisdom and our willingness and ability to "aspire to a more perfect Union.". And I saw that vision being endorsed, repeatedly and powerfully, from the podium. Most importantly, I saw the Democrats actually repudiating the stance of the GOP, with intelligent arguments and with evidence.

Now get you, I thought the Republicans put forward some great speeches as well, most notably, Anne Romney, Condoleeza Ric, Susana Martinez and Chris Christie. But the Dems were represented brilliantly, by speaker after speaker.

Joe Biden was pretty damn good. Michelle Obama was even better. I was very impressed by the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Sandra Fluke. President Obama gave a strong, solid speech, with a nice balance of rational argument and inspiration. But it was absolutely Bill Clinton who delivered the best speech of the entire two weeks. He inspired, he entertained, but best of all, he took the Republican position and arguments and dismantled them, point by point, and presented a stirring and well argued acknowldegment of Obama's accomplishments, and of the difficult circumstances under which he's achieved them. And he spoke with such dignified naturalness, with no hint of artificiality or manipulative intent. He spoke like one whose been there, telling it like it was. As he spoke, I felt that Clinton was laying out a blueprint for the remainder of the campaign, which, if followed, could not but lead to another four years for Obama. He was Brilliant!

But here we are now, a couple of days later, and the campaign is really just beginning, and the outcome far from being decided. And it's time to get more involved. Over the past few years, I've signed my share of petitions, and sent a few emails, and donated a bit of money to campaigns and organizations I believe in. But I realize that I'll need to step it up if I want to take an active hand in shaping the future of the country of my birth, and of the broader world we all live in.

As absurd, inhumane and distant from lived realities as it can be, politics is important. At its core, it's about negotiating the relationships among us, about meeting needs, and about values. Whether we've ever voted or not, politics moves us, one way or another.

Today, I was able to make contact with Democrats Abroad, and to learn a little about the actions they are taking to support Obama and other Democrats. I intend to participate in a few phone banks over the coming weeks, encouraging others to register and vote. Maybe I'll have the opportunity to actually talk ideas with a flexible or open-minded Republican or Independent. I'm hopeful.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Among the Amish

I’m spending a long weekend on Cloud, with no company but Rufus, the oldest and only male among our three cats. Rufus is the only one of the three who gets to make these trips, because he is the most unflappable of creatures, and also the most bonded to us. He endured the trip here – six hours in all when you count the border crossing and the meal and coffee stops – without a single whimper, but with much peering out and sniffing at the windows at the wonders of the roadways and the aromas of these new realms.

I feel a new and different person here, with so much space around me, the life I encounter in the forms of tiny frogs, hummingbirds and surreal denizens of the insect world. It was here – after arriving at Cloud in the early morning – that Rufus issued his first guttural growl, at creatures he sensed but could not see, nor, I suspect, understand. He has free reign of these 9 acres, but hasn’t strayed far from me, which I appreciate – not having ventured into the distant corners of our lot myself, just yet.
It’s such a different thing having this sort of relationship to a plot of land. So different than my lifelong experience of the city, where whatever nature is encountered has bent itself to the demands of ourselves: ever restless, too busy to see, dodging the rhythms that surround us.

Both I and Rufus – city cat that he is – are quieted by our encounter with this relatively untame place. Here, it seems that nature ignores us, as we ignore our potted plants and trees planted singly along boulevards as decoration. Here, nature explodes out of every untended place. I’m amazed at the proliferation of species. There’s something too about the wildness itself – this evidence of life thriving, without plan or regulation or the imposed order of what we call reason. I know some will say that this all points to some divine intelligence. All I know is that, whatever intelligence is indicated, if intelligence it be, is beyond my grasp, ultimately beyond the parsing and analysis of our infant sciences.
But enough of that. It’s the Amish I want to write about. Because I was moved by my encounter with these people who are legendary in America, though they’ve maintained their simple, grounded existence for centuries, relatively untouched amid the hustle and the bustle.

Nothing so exceptional about my “encounter” either. I simple drove downt he road a piece from cloud, to Lester’s yard, referred to hereabouts as the Amish Mall. Lester has an assortment of trailers and rvs parked around his barn, each bursting with what I guess to be surplus merchandise he buys, then sells. It seems – to some degree – a rather worldly pursuit for a member of a people I’d always thought of as maintaining a prideful separateness for our “consumer” reality. Be that as it may, Lester moves about his yard barefoot and in coveralls, with the long beard and the wide-brimmed straw hat I expected. He deals in cash, clumping and peeling bills to and from a wad he keeps in one of his deep pockets, and writes out all his transactions in the small empty gaps he finds in a wad of a notepad he carries in another. Though there are a half dozen other “outsiders” about his yard when I come by, he is unhurried, and he invites me to have a look around, including inside any of the trailers.
All I’m looking for on this stop are some nails, and I find them stacked willy-nilly in boxes and cartons, some of which are open and spilling their contents onto the trailer floor. I find what I need and then add to them a fat tomato - 75 - and a jar of strawberry jam - $4.50. I ask him if $10. will cover the lot, and after suggesting I might have weighed the nails for an accurate pricing, he shrugs and accepts the $10, implying that I’ve paid too much. But I tell him I’m in a hurry to get to his neighbor that he’s directed me to, who sells the rough lumber, so we part ways and I head over to Harry Troyer’s.

Harry is a more smiling man than Lester. He’s dressed about the same, though he wears shoes. And he’s mostly busy at his gasoline-powered saw while I’m there, among several others getting supplies at the last moment, before he closes down for the weekend. I mostly interact with Abe, a youngster of about 11 or twelve. Abe is smart and a lot more knowledgeable about wood than I am. When I tell him I’m constructing a few steps for the back of the cabin, he tells me that oak is better for outside jobs than pine, though more expensive. He helps me find the 2x4s and 2x6s I decide on, and load them into the back of the car. By the time we’re done, Harry is free to settle us up. My purchase comes to just over $21. and Harry too deals from a big wad of cash, though he writes out a proper receipt with his name printed on it.
I’m told that there are two different groups among the Amish, distinguished by the amount of technology and interaction with the wider world that they tolerate. I’m not sure to which these two households I’ve dealt with belong. They don’t seem particularly shy or wary of us outsiders. All the barefoot kids I encounter along the road - staw-hatted or bonneted, depending on the gender – offer a wave as I pass. I haven’t seem many brown-skinned folks in the vicinity, so I imagine I’m a bit of a novelty to them. But all is calm, low key and pleasant as I chat with Abe and Harry, and with the next-to-last customer, buying a truckload of lumber for a horse corral their building.

When we’re alone, Harry and I, I share – because I’ve been feeling the desire to share it, to honor it with him – my understanding of the debt my people owe to his. I recount what I’ve read, about how the  Amish were among the only early Americans who stood against slavery on principle, and about how they opened their homes to escaped blacks on their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad. I tell him that, until today, I’d never met an Amish person, but that I’ve always appreciated their principled stand, and was glad to acknowledge that, here, to him. Harry smiled at that, a pleasant smile, pleased and a little self-conscious. Yes, he said, he’d heard a little about that.
We chat a little more. He’s lived here for twenty-four years, having come from Pennsylvania, Harry says. The boy Abe, had come from Wisconsin, only five years before. This of course, checked my assumption, that these were people rooted generations deep into the soil of these particular hills. So again, as is so frequent when I’m in Toronto, I’m standing with people on land none of us was born to, that we’ve all come to from somewhere else. What dya know!? It’s enough of a tiny coincidence that I raise my eyes to the hills, glowing in the light of the descending sun. It’s so beautiful around here, I say. It’s one of the most beautiful views in the whole area, young Abe says.