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Some disjointed thoughts on needles and pitchforks

This Won't End Well

A month or so ago, I was part of a discussion on … some social justice issue, I don’t remember exactly what, and I felt calm. Some policy thing hadn’t happened as fast as someone wanted. My comment was along the lines of: but we’ve moved the needle. It’ll move again.

And I felt ok with that, because at this point I am old enough to have seen various other needles moved a little bit, over and over, until it actually meant something real and produced real results. Marriage for our LGBT+ friends, for example. Lots of things around tobacco policy. Full-day kindergarten. Pick your favourite issue. I mean, we’re even making progress on basic income.

I guess I was feeling that moving the needle a millimetre at a time was getting us somewhere real. I think I’ve made the error of middle age, the one that says it’s ok to put down the pitchfork and take up the quill.

We can’t ever put down the damn pitchfork, it seems.

I know the pendulum (to switch metaphors) swings. I know that for every advance, there’s always backlash before we can really move on.

Right now I’m starting to draft some thinking around evaluation for some national projects in the general social justice field and I’m thinking about using backlash as an indicator.

Until recently I had a nice thick file of hatemail from several decades ago when I ventured to work on things as innocuous as keeping Women’s College Hospital as its own entity or keeping Toronto un-amalgamated.

Yes, even in the 1990s a substantial number of folks thought I should be raped, tortured, dismembered and/or killed for advocating that women control an actual hospital and felt quite free to tell me so. It was an unending cascade of threats, 100% by men. A nice thick file of hatred and threat and vitriol.

I kept the letters as a reminder that we were succeeding. That we weren’t preaching to the choir, that the message was out there. And I keep saying that backlash is a sign of progress. How can I incorporate this into evaluation plans for this project? How can you measure backlash?

By elections, apparently.

It’s nice to think of backlash as an indicator of progress but I have to keep thinking: how do we move past backlash (this severe and this close to home) into real progress — into a society that is less and less based on fear and scarcity and zero-sum accounting and more about supporting everyone to live a good life?

How do we keep moving the needle towards a country which works to support its residents instead of tearing everyone down to the lowest common denominator? How can we prevent a Canadian Trump?

It’s a fragile needle, our progress indicator.

Twenty-one years ago, I sat in an Environmental Studies grad school seminar discussing when — not if, when — climate change would reach its tipping point. Collectively, we said: 30 years.

More and more I think we were right. Nine more years of the status quo and we’re pretty much fucked, climate-wise.

“No wonder the undergrads find us depressing,” noted the professor.

But we were right. We’re watching the world go over a climate cliff — no scientist even questions this, although we might argue about the details — and here we are electing people who think the planet is some sort of unimportant externality, who prioritize the economy as if an uninhabitable planet can continue to produce double-digit growth forever, as if new modes of living won’t also produce economic opportunities, as if we can ignore carbon dioxide permanently over 400ppm. More magical thinking. This is four years the planet can’t afford.

And yet people drive to pipeline protests. Sometimes I think there is no winning.

I found myself feeling real anger towards Americans casually declaring they’d move to Canada. Yeah, no. We’re not your consolation prize. You stay home and fix your country. They need you — if you leave, don’t you see you’re moving the needle in the wrong direction? If you have enough points to succeed in Canadian immigration, you’re probably not the sort of person who needs to leave. These are the kind of people Canada welcomes as immigrants. Stay. Act. Fight.

And take care of those of you who DO need protecting. They need you.

People — privileged people, of all stripes; people who have the leisure to contemplate policy — sometimes forget that all policies kill people. You can kill more or fewer people, and you can kill more of one kind of person or another, and you can kill people through action or inaction. But in order to make the best possible policy, you need to know the reality of it — you need to look at established fact and evidence and then make your best guess about what’s going to happen if you enact your policy, because systems are complex as well as complicated and we can’t always predict everything.

Policies based on ideology divorced from evidence and fact almost inevitably kill more people, because people’s lives are (imagine that) lived in reality and not within the bounds of ideology. It’s not wrong to be terrified when people are appointed or elected who vow to make policy based on their own imaginations instead of on the available evidence.

Generally, I think it’s a good idea to try to make policies that kill the fewest people. It’s apparent that not everyone agrees. I know that; I know it’s true and yet every time dangerous people get elected I always end up sitting here in stupidly naive shock.

I haven’t seen raw fear as an election reaction before. Fear, real fear, accurate, personal, deep fear for one’s life — this in a democracy; that’s the new thing that’s come out of this election. Possibly it’s also a new thing to elect someone who hopes his policies do kill people.

I’m not sure how it’s feasible to work to move the needle with such a person in charge — barring the pitchforks.

(Don’t put down the pitchforks.)

But also I think we need to keep working on moving that needle, millimetre by millimetre, even when it seems pointless or hopeless. Taking care of ourselves and taking care of everyone else. Not losing the vision of something better. Calling out assholery and discrimination when we see it, when we can. Love is love is love is love and let’s not forget that.

(Don’t put down the pitchforks.)

Presto is a pain in the [insert body part here]

Presto has been in the news quite a bit lately. I had a cranky-making experience with being unexpectedly out of tokens on a cold night and having the fancy Spadina streetcar-platform machine refuse to sell me one unless I had exact change (the machines CAN take Interac or Visa, but don’t — the option is greyed out), so I decided to be a sheep and try Presto. Hey, maybe it’s great! Baaa!

Well, no. Not so far, anyway.

I had to order a card online and register it in a rather protracted 4-step signup process. You have to create a whole account and there are separate passwords for the card and the account. I thought I’d get one for my kid too, but it seems that you can’t order more than one card at a time. Perhaps I missed the option; the interface is not exactly user-friendly.

Eight days later, the card arrived in the mail. You can’t set up auto-reload — which is really the key feature; never running out of fares because the card knows when it’s low on funds and magically grabs more from your bank account — until you activate it. But activation is a 2-step process: first you need to go online and enter a 17-digit number. Then you have to use the card, i.e. find a subway staton that has a Presto terminal and use it to pay for that trip. The terminal at St Patrick was broken, so I had to walk up to Queen’s Park to do this.

THEN you have to wait 24 hours until you can go online and set up auto-reload or do anything else to it. The auto-reload system makes you enter dollars and cents but can’t actually handle amounts other than full dollars — when I tried to enter $8.50, it barfed.

You can go online and check your balance, but this isn’t real-time either. The system only updates once a day so you’re always looking at yesterday’s data.

You can add more cards to your account if the cards are already registered; apparently their owners also still have them on their accounts and can log in and mess around with them too, so what a mess if you’re trying to keep your accounting straight. Oh, and the card expires in five years (why?).

If I still want a card for my kid, I get to go through all this rigmarole all over again, with the addition of annual in-person trips to Davisville to have the “concession” student fare applied to her card.

This is not the 21st century I signed up for. This is complete nonsense and is not a significant improvement over the current metal-trinkets-and-bits-of-paper system. I have no idea why we aren’t just buying some sensible transit-card system from someplace that’s figured it out — there are plenty to choose from.

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On the folly of not clearing the leaves in the street

This past autumn, my city decided they weren’t going to pick up the leaves that fall into the street in my neighbourhood. Normally they come by once each year after most of the leaves have fallen and enormous street-sweeping-leaf-picking-upping machines haul away the detritus. But not this year. Instead, as a cost-cutting measure the leaves were left to lie in the gutters. There are really a lot of leaves in my neighbourhood, since it features many large maple and oak trees and many of them overhang the street.

Fast forward to November. Now the leaves in the street have been driven over, parked on, and generally reduced to a thick fibrous mash covering much of the surface of the street. It’s very slippery to ride a bicycle on this mess.

Leaf mush

Then it snows. People drive over the snow plus leaf mash, turning it into a stiff slurry that slides to the sides of the street and freezes solid, blocking all the drains.

Then it snows again. Because the plows push the snow to the side of the street and because even when it does warm up a bit none of the meltwater can make it through the leaf slurry covering the drains, the snow builds up on top of the frozen leaf slurry. People park on it, crushing it into ice.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Now we have a berm of solid ice a good 15 centimetres thick and two metres wide between the street and the sidewalk.

Ardagh Ice Berm

It’s taller than the sidewalk, so any meltwater from the berm and from people’s front yards can’t go anywhere. On warm days the sidewalk becomes an enormous deep puddle.

On the street side of the ice berm, the meltwater also has nowhere to go since the berm forms a solid barrier between the street and the (inaccessible anyway because they’re under six inches of ice and frozen leaf slurry) drains.

The temperature is supposed to reach highs above freezing for most of this week, with rain and perhaps more snow. What falls on the street will stay there, making a swamp; what falls on the sidewalk will stay there too, joining the meltwater from people’s front yards, forming deep puddles during the day that will freeze into treacherous slipperiness at night.

It is going to be a very big mess. There will be many soggy basements and many irate calls to the city.

I’m not sure what they thought would happen here — I predicted this very state of affairs back in October when I heard they weren’t going to sweep the leaves. And I would put quite a bit of money on the cleanup costing far more than it would’ve cost to sweep the leaves in the first place. Sigh.

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Dear publishers: No.

At dinner the other night a number of people were surprised to hear of the absurd phenomenon of digital (and DRM’d to boot) books being more expensive than print versions — not just paperbacks, but hardcovers. So here’s one example.

This looks like an interesting book. A bunch of folks I know on Goodreads have read it and rated it highly. I feel like it’s the sort of book that might be worth throwing money at, so I add it to my queue and off I go to look up the Kindle edition, prepared to buy.

Here’s a screenshot from Amazon from sometime in June.

$19.16? Is the publisher crazy? When I could buy the hardcover, with its lack of DRM and other nonsense, for ~$17.00?

But am I going to buy a huge heavy hardcover book when I set out to buy a weightless ebook in the first place? No, I am not. I doubt anyone would. If I wanted a hardcover I would have bestirred my butt to buy it from the store down the street. But I do not want the hardcover, because it is heavy and annoying and then I have to find shelf space for it once I’m done with it.

You know what happens in this sort of case? Every single time?

That’s right. I shrug, then I add myself to the end of the hold list at the library. I’ll read it in 397 holds (plus mine = 398) / 39 copies x 3 weeks = ~30 weeks when it turns up. Fine. I can wait. There are plenty of other books to read in the meantime.

I will not, on principle, pay more for pixels — especially DRM’d pixels — than I will for a physical book. And I will also not go out and buy a physical book simply because the electronic copy has been artificially made more expensive. For me, pricing ebooks to exceed the cost of a physical book will, 100% of the time, equal a lost sale.

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It’s not the headphones

Here we have an article exploring pedestrian-vehicle crashes “in which the pedestrian was using headphones“.

Results There were 116 reports of death or injury of pedestrians wearing headphones. The majority of victims were male (68%) and under the age of 30 (67%). The majority of vehicles involved in the crashes were trains (55%), and 89% of cases occurred in urban counties. 74% of case reports stated that the victim was wearing headphones at the time of the crash. Many cases (29%) mentioned that a warning was sounded before the crash.

This sounds a bit confused — were there 116 incidents, or 74% of 116? One wonders. Either way, 116 over seven years (16.6 fatalities a year) doesn’t seem like a lot to get excited about, given that the USA has over 30,000 fatalities annually from car crashes (did they have their car stereos on? Perhaps it’s the music that’s at fault).

One also wonders, if I count as “one”, why the headphones are being blamed here. Being a pedestrian is not in itself inherently dangerous. It’s hard to kill yourself just walking around; it’s the large vehicles with which one may suddenly come into contact that are the danger here. As a pedestrian walking around at 6km/h, I am not dangerous. A motor vehicle comprising a bunch of metal traveling at 50km/h or more is dangerous.

A train is also dangerous. If 55% of these crashes involved trains, mostly in urban areas, why is the focus not on decreasing pedestrian access to train tracks? And since when is 29% — where “a warning was sounded” — “many”?

This sort of blame-the-victim writing really ticks me off.

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The annual holiday health curmudgeon warning

Again it’s time for the holiday health curmudgeons to bleat at us, disregarding mental and emotional health and a warm feeling of togetherness and community in favour of carrot sticks and abstinence.

This year they’d like us to tell our relatives they’re fat.

‘Tell loved ones they are overweight this Christmas’

Christmas may be a time of indulging for many, but health experts believe it is the perfect time to tell a loved one they are overweight.

Right, because
1. They don’t know?
2. It’s any of your business?
3. There’s not an increasing body of evidence that the connection between health and body size is not as simple as “fat = bad”?

That’ll be a really merry Christmas for everyone.

Pff. If the “health experts” are worried about people’s health, perhaps they shouldn’t give people advice that will get them punched.

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The Two Kinds of Nonprofit Conferences

Today I was watching Twitter hashtags from two separate events. Both were notionally on a similar topic, but the difference in tone was striking and it clarified something for me.

There are two kinds of events that nonprofits tend to have.

In the first, a select or invited group of people who aren’t terribly conversant with the realities of the work get together to talk about how wonderful they all are and what great work they’re doing. They know they’re doing great work because they keep inviting each other to events, and they keep getting invited so they must be doing great work because that’s the point of the events, right?

In the second, a group of people who really grok the situation get together to talk about how they can work within awkward structures and systems (within reality, really) to make things incrementally better, or at least prevent them from getting worse. This group looks at who’s in the room, is delighted to recognize very few people, worries about who’s not there, and sees its main work as turning apparent answers into better questions.

The problem is that the people at the first kind of event really need to be at the second, and vice versa.

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Express.

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

As I was sitting on an Air Canada “Express” plane last night, waiting for a “ramp crew” to produce a nonexistent ramp — the plane was a turboprop about two feet off the ground; the built-in stairs did nicely, but apparently we needed three “ramp crew” to smile at us and point us into the terminal ten metres away before we were allowed to exit the damn plane — I was pondering how “Express” has somehow become a synonym for “inferior PITA version of what used to be”.

Ford Prefect: How are you feeling?
Arthur Dent: Like a military academy. Bits of me keep passing out. Ford? If I were to ask you where the hell we were, would I regret it?
Ford Prefect: We’re safe.
Arthur Dent: Ah. Good.
Ford Prefect: We’re in a cabin of one of the spaceships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet.
Arthur Dent: Ah. This is obviously some strange usage of the word “safe” that I hadn’t previously been aware of.

Air Canada “Express”. Is this what Jazz has become? Except on Jazz you could get hot drinks, and you could gate-check your bags. Neither of these conveniences were available on this “Express” flight, so my perfectly legal carry on needed to be wedged very firmly under an empty seat across the aisle since they’ve apparently made both the overhead bins and the underseat area too small to fit normal carry-ons. And on a two-hour flight after five hours of meetings and a four-hour drive, we couldn’t have some tea, since they appear to have dispensed with all heating elements onboard. Then when we arrived we had to wait ten minutes before the “ramp crew” was able to supervise our descent of the three steps to the tarmac.

I’m fond of Holiday Inn Express hotels, but they’re inarguably the inferior, less nice version of Holiday Inns.

Lately my wine club has instituted an “Express” line for members. Before this line, I could walk up to the (enclosed, covered) warehouse loading dock, hand them my pick-up notice, wait three or five minutes then walk away with my wine. Now I have to go into an office, wait in line, have someone peruse my ID, wait for that someone to fuss about on the computer, and eventually be sent outside to a distant door far past the loading dock to wait outside in the rain for my wine. I have yet to spend less than twenty minutes on this “express” process.

“Express”. Feh.

“Tax Freedom” Day is bullshit.

Not relatively minor chickenshit — full-on full-size bullshit. If I could pitch the entire Fraser Institute off a cliff for even thinking up the term I would do it.

So, yes, the Fraser Institute is going on about how June 6 is “Tax Freedom Day” this year — the day after which “Canadians finally pay off their taxes for the year and can start working for themselves”. And CBC, shame on them, feels the need to pay attention to their pathetic bleating.

As if paying taxes wasn’t already “working for yourself”, your family, your neighbourhood, your country. As if there’s no value at all to the services provided by all our levels of government. As if we’d be better off without those services. As if civilization doesn’t depend on them. As if you could provide them cheaper by yourself instead of taking advantage of massive economies of scale. As if the people whining about them haven’t benefited massively from the services that have been provided to them; as if those taxes didn’t pay for the educational institutions and infrastructure that’s put them in such a privileged position that they’re now free to spend their time whining instead of doing something useful.

I’ll indulge in a lengthy but topical quote from Heather Mallick’s “Tax is not a dirty word” here:

Traffic lights, military graveyards, restaurant kitchen inspection, best-before dates on cheese, transport-truck safety, passports, immunization, filtration standards for urban cremation chimneys, crosswalk-painting, drainage, bank deposit insurance, child-support enforcement, prison guards, chiropractor regulation, bridges, tunnels, flag design, auditors-general, airwaves usage, census-taking, postal codes, organ donation, courts, clean water, weather history, alcoholism treatment, classrooms, assisted reproduction, at-risk species registration, forest-insect slaughter, fish conservation, Olympic training, vehicle registration, name change, international child abduction search and rescue.

Take a deep breath, class.

Building codes, nature trails, mental health treatment, Ontario cemetery finding, Toronto bike lockers, maps, vehicle sensors, P.A.T.H., apartment standards, First Nations statistics, land claims, bankruptcy, Polar Continental Shelf tracking, veterans, fence disputes, fraud and waste hotline, leaf pickup, snow removal, urban forestry, Hydro, pesticide regulation, Great Lakes pilotage, litter collection, committees of adjustment, army and navy, autism assessment, behavioural therapy, border guards, serial-killer tracking, copyright, Supreme Court appointments, governors-general, access to information, adoption records, critical infrastructure protection.

And another breath.

Air-bag safety, student loans, agricultural income stabilization, immigration, embassies and consulates, parole, postage stamps, streamlined customs clearance, the national do-not-call list, forest-fire mapping, petroleum and natural gas lands administration, canola dealer licensing, hunting and snaring licences, fisheries, elections, pensions, money-minting, aviation museums, polar ice-watching, police college, social assistance, unemployment insurance.

And that was just a taste, a smattering, of what Canadians do and have done for them, the stuff that makes you want to kiss the sweet Pearson tarmac when you get home from the bloody dust of Afghanistan and never leave this good-natured civilized paved place until whatever-awaits-us extends its bony hand and says “Follow me.”

Perhaps the Fraser Institute should relocate itself to, say, Somalia, if it feels taxes are so valueless. Fine. Go live somewhere without them. Work “for yourself”. (Here’s your AK-47, son. You’ll need it.)

Or perhaps Syria. A friend, posting the link to the blog of an out lesbian in Damascus who was just abducted off the street noted:

My friends blog about books and cycling and writing for TV, and then they go on with their lives. We are all extremely lucky.

Yes, we are lucky, extremely lucky. And in part we make our own luck by paying our damn taxes so that we can continue to live in a civilized country where people living peaceful lives don’t, as a rule, get snatched off the street.

/soapbox.

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‘Tis the season for Expert Curmudgeons again

In previous years we’ve had warnings about Santa’s fatness setting a bad example and how we should all abjure cookies and eggnog and subsist on carrot sticks and water at holiday parties. This year it’s eating leftovers and Santa’s sleep (or lack thereof) habits that are under fire:

Surely Santa will feel jet-lagged at the end of his trip! To deliver presents at exactly mid-night all around the world he will have to spend 24h in trans-meridian travel with rapid changes in time zones and little time for his body clock to adapt. He will travel in darkness all the time, so he will be more likely to fall asleep. Catch-up sleep helps to recover from the short-term tiredness and fatigue, but will not help avoid the long-term consequences of sleep deprivation. If he were to do this all year round, he would definitely run the risk of dying prematurely.

How cheerful!

The thing the Expert Curmudgeons always overlook, and I think this is a real issue, is that health is about more than sleep hygiene and carrot sticks. Health is also about having a good time with friends and family, relaxing, enjoying yourself and enjoying eating and drinking yummy seasonal treats.

Western concepts of health and medicine should take a page or two (or, hell, the whole book) from the Aboriginal Medicine Wheel concept, in which health comprises physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health all together. Eggnog, cookies, gravy, friends and family may not be absolutely helpful to our physical wellbeing, but they’re a very important part of the total picture of what makes us happy, content and — therefore — healthy in a more inclusive, absolute sense. You can go to a party and eat carrot sticks and drink water and feel all virtuous and abstemious, or you can go to the same party and actually enjoy yourself: which is better for you as a whole? I’d argue a certain amount of seasonal indulgence is good for the soul. It’s a long, cold, dark winter and we’re in the darkest bit: eggnog and cookies are perfectly reasonable coping mechanisms.

At this point I will link back to a post from four years ago with much better holiday tips.

This biologist says drink the damn eggnog, eat the damn cookies, sleep in (or get up early, whatever floats your boat) and enjoy yourself. So you might gain a pound or two or suffer the odd hangover. So what. Your emotional, mental, spiritual self will probably thank you. Your physical self can correct any lingering issues in January.

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Uggg, morning

This is a good start, but I think I need another couple points on the far left. I’m not sure I could work up enough energy to punch morning in the face.

Surviving the World

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Stereotypes

How I hate it when people live up to stereotypes.

I look at the G20 coverage and that’s all I see. We had people marching peacefully for good causes, whose messages will now never be heard. We had the riot-helmeted cops marching in rows. We had idiots who like to break things and nobody stopped them despite 900 arrests — at a billion dollars of security, that’s $1,111,111 per arrest, never mind that the vast majority had charges dropped and were released in short order. We had media covering the people who break things instead of the people with interesting things to say. We had protest-tourists who stood around uselessly watching things go pear-shaped, tweeting and snapping photos. And we had millions of us who just stayed home and let it all happen.

I hate it all — well, all except the folks who were marching peacefully and using their democratic right to have their say. I’m fully in support of peaceful demonstrations.

But how can the Toronto police, who normally let small children pat the noses of horses in riot gear, who line Yonge and high-five a million people and politely confiscate open beers whenever we win any sort of sports thing, who happily close off part of University Avenue for two weeks while Tamils have their say in front of the US Consulate, have allowed themselves to be such immense jerks?

How can anyone — dressed in name-brand black outfits (note Fila pants) and Kevlar body armour — have such an overwhelming sense of entitlement that they think randomly smashing up other people’s stuff is either fun or OK?

How can anyone — given the presence of fifty or more other nearby observers — stand there blinking like sheep and watch someone smash stuff up? I mean, look at these people in the background; they’re pretending it’s TV:

Shame, shame. Also, as we would say in college: WEAK. Dudes, whatever kind of society you’re advocating for, count me the hell OUT. That kind of crap is why I stayed home.

I think that was probably our collective mistake, giving in to the imposed fear and inconvenience and failing to say “eff it, I’m a Canadian, this is my city, and I’m going to continue to live my life,” going to our offices and restaurants and shows and walking our dogs and generally continuing life downtown despite the lack of transit or the presence of eleventy-gazillion police in riot gear or whatever. After all, what’s the point of inflicting house arrest on ourselves in the name of security? Would this all have unfolded differently if we-the-people in our millions didn’t collectively abdicate our responsibility to be ourselves, thus leaving downtown a howling wasteland / combat zone where everyone present fell into one of four or five stereotypical roles? What if we kept the focus squarely where it belongs in a democracy such as ours: on freedom-to instead of freedom-from?

It makes no sense. None of it makes any sense. And it’s all very disappointing, to put it mildly.

THIS is my Toronto: police marching WITH today’s anti-brutality protestors.

This is also my Toronto, courtesy of a friend on Facebook (and if anyone runs across a link to the video, which was apparently on tonight’s news, I’d love to add it) edit – here it is:

…just saw what is probably my favourite video of the mayhem in Toronto this weekend: Some guy in a black shirt & bandana smashes the window of downtown electronics store and grabs something. This Joe walking by in a polo shirt & knapsack tackles him, takes away the thing, throws it back in the store, then just gets up and continues walking the direction he was going.

Thanks, Joe. You may have been the only honorable person in Toronto this weekend.

Women don’t breastfeed? Here’s a thought —

— maybe hospitals should be nicer to midwives.

I gave birth at Women’s College Hospital, and of all places I fully expected them to support my midwives. But they were unspeakably awful to them — rude, dismissive, demeaning, the whole gamut of bad behaviour. They topped it off by ignoring me (I was admitted unplanned, following a complication; midwifery patients usually go home shortly after the birth) as totally as they could, unless they were calling me by a name I don’t use and rolling their eyes at me. I was, to put it mildly, unimpressed that a hospital that purports to support women’s health behaved so badly to an entire profession that not only purports to, but does, support women’s health..

Nursing moms need more support: Toronto

A study by Toronto Public Health of 1, 500 first-time mothers in this city found that while most new moms try breastfeeding in the hospital, only about 63 per cent are still doing it exclusively by the time they’re discharged from hospital.

Six months down the road, only 17 and a half per cent of moms are not supplementing their child’s diet with formula, the study titled Breastfeeding in Toronto – Promoting Supportive Environments found.

Breastfeeding takes support. Serious support, from the new mom’s partner, family, and all health practitioners and support staff. If you have a hospital that cares so little about women that it rolls its eyes at midwives and ignores their patients, how well supported in breastfeeding do you suppose women who give birth there tend to feel? And that’s the hospital that’s theoretically most sensitive to womens’ needs.

Yeah. No surprise there. No wonder that only 63% are breastfeeding by the time they leave hospital — probably less than 36 hours after giving birth. Shame on the hospitals.

(For the record, with my midwives’ support, I breastfed my daughter for a year.)

December 6, 20 years on

Pamela Cross has already said everything I would say (and more) about this sad anniversary, so I’ll just point you to her post.

Her post ends with a poem. I’ll also offer a poem, although not such an optimistic one. This one’s by Susan Griffin:

An Answer to a Man’s Question,
“What Can I Do About Women’s Liberation?”

Wear a dress.
Wear a dress that you made yourself, or bought in a dress store.
Wear a dress and underneath the dress wear elastic, around
your hips, and underneath your nipples.
Wear a dress and underneath the dress wear a sanitary napkin.
Wear a dress and wear sling-back, high-heeled shoes.
Wear a dress, with elastic and a sanitary napkin underneath,
and sling-back shoes on your feet, and walk down Telegraph Avenue.
Wear a dress, with elastic and a sanitary napkin and sling-
back shoes on Telegraph Avenue and try to run.

Find a man.
Find a nice man who you would like to ask you for a date.
Find a nice man who will ask you for a date.
Keep your dress on.
Ask the nice man who asks you for a date to come to dinner.
Cook the nice man a nice dinner so the dinner is ready before
he comes and your dress is nice and clean and wear a smile.
Tell the nice man you’re a virgin, or you don’t have
birth control, or you would like to get to know him better.
Keep your dress on.
Go to the movies by yourself

Find a job.
Iron your dress.
Wear your ironed dress and promise the boss you won’t get
pregnant (which in your case is predictable) and you like to
type, and be sincere and wear your smile.
Find a job or get on welfare.
Borrow a child and get on welfare.
Borrow a child and stay in the house all day with the child,
or go to the public park with the child, and take the child
to the welfare office and cry and say your man left you and
be humble and wear your dress and your smile, and don’t talk
back, keep your dress on, cook more nice dinners, stay
away from Telegraph Avenue, and still, you won’t know the
half of it, not in a million years.

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And yet M’s school insists I pick her up

Ah, how I love Lenore Skenazy. And STATS, who interviewed her.

Perhaps the problem needed to be approached from a different angle, she thought. What if you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger and held overnight? How long would you have to leave him outside, and unattended for that to be likely to happen? When she asked people to take a guess, the most she ever heard was three months. Some people ventured a day, an hour, and even – implausibly – ten minutes.

The answer to Skenazy’s question was… 750,000 years. By reframing the way the risk was framed, she took the focus away from one, and placed it on what the chance was in real time – and 750,000 years is a far more arresting and reassuring number than one in 1.5 million.

“I haven’t seen horrible diseases sweeping the country as a result of any child rearing technique that we’ve been using, whether it’s drinking baby formula or using a sippy cup,“ she says. “So, rather than worry about these, I worry about cars. They are the number one way children are killed.”

There are lots of interesting statistics down the side of the article (because it is STATS, after all). I would’ve like to see similar “one in” and “x years” numbers for other forms of child mortality, particularly car crashes and injuries from toys. They do give either numbers or rates-per-million, but without numbers you can compare directly it’s hard to grasp how many orders of magnitude there are between the various risks. Some sort of graph or image, even, might help, since our brains are notoriously bad at relative risk analysis.

Anyway, great interview with Ms. Skenazy. Her blog Free Range Kids has much more.

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In which I fume about absurd school forms

I am facing the annual pile of forms from M’s school. I am immediately annoyed by the size of the pile. Welcome back! Let’s spend an hour filling out forms! The pile is stapled together in the bottom left corner, WTF? which heightens the annoyance, then I nearly break a nail prying out the staple so I can fill them out, which annoys me yet further. Oh, what fun. On to the forms:

  • Unnumbered form about the Safe Arrival program, requiring my signature, the name, room and grade of my kid. Rendered useless by the need to return the form, thus removing any reminder of the Safe Arrival procedures from my house.
  • Form 511H, Walking Excursion Form – Immediate Community. So they can take my kid outside the school fence. Requires kid’s name (twice), teacher’s name, my name and signature, date.
  • Form 511K, Physical Education Information and Intramural Information/Permission. Two pages long; summary: sometimes kids get hurt. It’s not like gym is optional, so what is the earthly point of this form? Requires name (twice) and grade/class of my kid, my name (twice), signature (twice) and date (twice).
  • Form 511E, Medical Information Form. Endless detail, mostly about allergies and Epipens. (Is it the school’s business if my child sleepwalks?). And yes, of course the school may call a doctor in an emergency. Sign, date.
  • Unnumbered form lecturing us about lunch hour procedures (“Lunchroom supervision is provided only for those students from grades 1 to 8 who cannot go home or make other arrangements” [like what other arrangements??]). Oh, I’m so terribly sorry my kid is inconveniently present all day but you know what? The school day overlaps most people’s work days and watching the kids over lunch is a perfectly normal part of the school deal. Rather contradictorily they point out that if kids who do go home are late coming back they may be required to stay for lunch. Make up your mind, folks! Requires kid’s name, schedule, grade, teacher’s name and room number (surely one of these would do?), and my signature signifying that I’ve read their snarky lecture.
  • Unnumbered Code of On-line Conduct form making me responsible for upholding the school’s policies, which are not provided for me to review. Sorry, but I am not signing this one. What my kid does during school hours on school computers under school supervision has nothing whatsoever to do with me. Also, it isn’t specified whether or not the kids are expected to follow these mysterious policies outside school, and what I let my kid do on our own computer is not the school’s business. I leave the line acknowledging that my kid will be using computers at school (like they need my permission for this) and cross out the rest.
  • School year calendar listing PA days and holidays, separately.
  • Class newsletter. In Comic Sans. WHY? Reiterates school hours (which seem to change every year) and which exits the kids use, as well as lecturing us about how to make a healthy lunch, lecturing us on the importance of reading, lecturing us on the importance of the mandatory ($6) planners, lecturing us about appropriate school supplies, and more. Lecture lecture lecture. Pthtththbbbbt.
  • Another calendar, very hard to read. Oh good, the kids are on a 7-day cycle this year so things like gym and library are even harder to keep straight. Of course, gym and library are not marked on this calendar OR the other calendar. Eventually I find them hidden in a corner of the class newsletter. I foresee a boring half-hour with this calendar and some coloured pens.
  • Unnumbered form requiring $6 for a planner. What, no signature required??
  • Unnumbered general Contact Information Form, in case my name wasn’t clear enough from the previous five billion forms. Comic Sans again makes me wince. I yet again cross off Mom’s Name and Dad’s Name and replace them with Parent/Guardian 1 and Parent/Guardian 2, and add yet another short note pointing out that there may be kids in care or in gay families, and inclusion never hurts. I do this every year (I can’t possibly be the only one) and yet there Mom and Dad remain on the form. There’s just no excuse for schools to have Mom & Dad on their forms in 2009. For shame.

And that seems to be it for the moment. It seems choir hasn’t started yet so I don’t have the form for that — as if it’s any of my business if my kid wants to join a school program during school hours — and apparently the Pizza Day folks haven’t quite got things together yet, so we still have those forms to look forward to. Whee.

The thing that bugs me most? I fill out these forms every.single.year. So do the other 950 parents at M’s school and probably thousands and thousands more across the city. All this paper and all this wasted effort! What did they do with the other four years’ worth of forms I’ve filled out? Why on earth isn’t all this information kept in a database for the duration of my child’s stay at the school? At worst it should be printed and sent to me each year to initial or update, but really it ought to be online for me to review and update. Remind me what year it is again? Or maybe what century we’re in?

The thing that bugs me almost as much: These things are SO badly designed. Why do I have to fill out my name and my kid’s name twice on many forms? Why (at the very least) is this not all one multi-part form? If you’re going to send these things to hundreds or thousands of people, put some effort into effective design!

Thing that bugs me quite substantially: The tone. The patronizing condescension. The air of mistrust and hints of disapproval. Please. Talking to me as if I were both six and slightly prone to misbehave does not make me want to fill out your forms.

Another thing that bugs me quite substantially: The unnecessary jargon. A whole page describing a Safe Arrival Program, which I can sum up as: call the school if you’re kid’s going to be absent? Two pages for the Phys Ed/Intramural one, which is: kids sometimes fall down? And these are the people who are supposed to be teaching my child how to communicate? Gaaah! Speak like normal people already, and if you’ve forgotten do that, hire a plain-language specialist.

Thing that also bugs me: Comic Sans. Let’s ban it. Nobody over the age of ten or so should find Comic Sans even slightly acceptable for formal communications.

This pile of forms is due tomorrow, as at least three forms plus the class newsletter remind me. By now I am in such a cranky rebellious temper that I am sorely tempted to hold on to them until Tuesday, just because. But I suppose it’s a little early in the school year to be that openly antagonistic, so I shall dutifully send them off tomorrow.

And now I shall have a beer and blow off my antisocial crankiness with an extra-loud belch.

Desperately sad. Easily avoided.

I have to say something about this desperately sad story, in which two children, non-swimmers both, drowned and died along with their mother, also a non-swimmer, who had been supervising them as they swam in a hotel pool (without a lifeguard). It seems that one or both girls somehow got into trouble and the mother then jumped in to try to save them. All of them died.

What I have to say is this: do not ever swim without a qualified lifeguard watching you. And if you do, quite literally the last thing you may do is jump in to save someone. By doing so you are worsening the emergency: now there are two people in trouble instead of one.

Drowning people don’t look like the stereotype, with lots of thrashing and waving arms and shouting and all that. People who truly can’t swim often are just below the surface. You might see their arms — they might look like they’re climbing a ladder — but they don’t come far out of the water. They’re quiet, not calling out. They’re using all their effort to try to reach the surface. They are desperate and they are not rational.

And these folks are dangerous. Unless you really know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t go anywhere near a drowning person. They are so freaked out, so detached from normal perception, so focused on their own survival that they will do anything — ANYTHING — to keep themselves at the surface. They are incredibly strong from adrenalin, and they will push you under and keep you under the surface of the water if climbing up your body will help them stay on the surface. Even a small child can drown you this way, even if you are a grown adult and a good swimmer.

Sometimes, drowning people don’t struggle. In a certain percentage of cases people just quietly slide under the surface. Even then if you jump in and try to grab them, if they’re still conscious they can push you under and kill you. They don’t mean to do it, but they will.

Treat drowning people like you would a wild animal you were trying to rescue. Pretend they have fangs and claws and poisonous barbs.

The usual algorithm to follow when considering a rescue is (with variations, but this is the simplest to remember):

  1. Talk – sometimes all the person needs is a calming voice, reassurance and guidance to help them reach safety.
  2. Reach – reach out to the person with an object — reaching pole, flutterboard, towel, paddle, pool noodle, piece of clothing — anything! If you absolutely must use your own body, lie down on your stomach so the drowning person can’t pull you in.
  3. Throw – throw the person a buoyant object such as a flutterboard or ring buoy and talk them in or pull them in. If you’re using a ring buoy, don’t forget to stand on the end of the rope when you throw it so it doesn’t ALL head out to sea (I always forget this important point).
  4. Row – use a boat to get to them, have them grab the stern end of the boat, and row them to shallow water,
  5. Go – swim out to them with a buoyant object. Stop a few metres away. Push the object to them with your foot. Keep well away. Talk to them reassuringly and guide them to shore.
  6. Tow – swim out to them with any object — a buoyant one if you can get one, but otherwise anything – piece of clothing, towel, whatever. The point is just to keep some distance between you. Have them hold one end of the object. Hold the other end and tow them to safety. If they start to come at you (by crawling up the object, for example), let go and swim a short distance away. Talk to them and see if you can get them to calm down and stop trying to kill you.
  7. and then if all else fails, Carry, which you should only ever do if you are trained to do so. If you aren’t trained in how to safely touch a drowning person, don’t do it. Run for help instead.

In a pool situation, such as the one referenced above in which all three people died, there is virtually never a reason for someone who is not a trained lifeguard to go in the water to rescue someone. Pools are always equipped with reaching and throwing assists. Always. More than one. There will probably be a reaching pole on a wall, a ring bouy on another wall, and various pool noodles, flutterboards, and other buoyant objects around. Use these. Don’t lose your head and leap in.

If you have children, or if you cannot swim yourself, as a first step for everyone I recommend the Swim to Survive program, because you can never tell when you may end up in deep water. It pays to be prepared, even minimally prepared. The Star has been promoting this program recently.

As the Kaianad/Yasmin family so tragically demonstrated this week, non-swimmers should never, ever be “supervising” non-swimmers in the water. Even if you are a good swimmer, you never know when you’re going to bonk your head, inhale water unexpectedly, get tangled in seaweed, get a cramp, or any number of other minor issues that could become fatal if no help is available.

So swim only in places where you know a trained person is watching. Please.

I am now determined to live to at least 83

…purely so I can use “Kiss my 83-year-old ass” as the title of a blog post.

Although anything over seventy or so works with reasonable credibility, really.

(h/t to Jan)

Ninety. A context-free number.

File under “not enough information to draw the conclusion they’ve drawn”:

Why did 90 children die?
Ontario’s child advocate was appalled to learn how many in the province’s welfare system die each year and is equally shocked at how difficult it is to get answers

First, I think we can all agree that the province’s unwillingness to cough up any useful information about the relevant cases to the child advocate’s office is inexcusable whatever the number of deaths or other issues. It’s hard to advocate effectively when you’re being stonewalled by those ostensibly working toward the same ends and I don’t blame the child advocate’s office for one second for using whatever numbers will get them the attention and cooperation they may need.

I think — hope — we can all also agree that any greater than zero number of deaths of children is very sad and horrible and such deaths are most urgently to be avoided.

What is not in this article or — just so it doesn’t look like I’m picking on this one piece, which I’m not — in any of the coverage I’ve seen, is any information that puts 90 child deaths in context for proper comparison and evaluation. How many children are there in Ontario? How many die each year, in what age groups, for what reasons? How do those population-level numbers and rates relate to the numbers and rates of deaths of children in care? Is it disproportionately high (or low, although that seems wildly unlikely), or are the rates not significantly different from rates in the population as a whole? Do the rates vary between groups — are, say, babies in care more (or less) likely to die than babies in the population in general? Small children? Teenagers? Disabled children?

I haven’t read the whole report yet so this may merely be a complaint about its media coverage. Still, if I were the child advocate’s office, I would be speaking loudly in my initial press releases about both the raw numbers and, if it’s relevant and useful, the rates. Ninety instinctively seems like a big number (awful thought, to think of ninety children dying) but it needs context to have real meaning. Perhaps something like this: “90 children in care or within a year of being in care died in 2007. This is n times the rate of death for all children in Ontario. This is inexcusable; children in our care deserve better. Wouldn’t it be nice if the government shared more information about at-risk children with the Child Advocate’s office so we could help bring down this rate?” etc.

I don’t mean to disparage the great work the advocates are doing in this case. I do regret that there are numbers being thrown around for shock value with no way to assess their real meaning.

Blog for Choice Day

Because denying a woman choice is one step on the way to telling her what else she may or may not do while pregnant.

Because if men got pregnant, this wouldn’t even be a question.

But above all, because my body is my body and it is mine to control.

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