Category Archives: In the News

Anti-Social

Did you know Anti-social means something entirely different here? I much prefer the UK definition.

Here, anti-social behaviour is something that actively goes against society. Something that disturbs the peace, and negatively affects the neighbourhood. Noise complaints, public drunkenness, vandalism – anything that blights the quality of individual and community life.

I’ve been trying hard to figure out a way to explain one of the key differences between life in the UK and life in North America, and the huge difference in the interpretation of the term ‘anti-social’ pretty much sums it up.

Because in North America, anti-social doesn’t mean ‘against society,’ it means opting out of it.

There isn’t really a great catch-all term in the US or Canada to describe what people here would call anti-social behaviour.

But there are, sadly, so very many ways to talk about opting-out of society.

I’ve just finished reading Emily Matchar’s “Homeward Bound: Why women are embracing the new domesticity,” which manages to put into words everything that was irritating me about parenting in Vancouver, that I couldn’t quite articulate:

  • My intense annoyance at the zealotry around homemade food. Homeschooling. ‘Natural’ products & methods.
  • When I railed about the stupidity in calling parenting ‘a job,’ bothered by the increased trend for women my age, and most importantly, social bracket, to opt out of the workforce.
  • The little pieces of my brain that are still left on the walls from the many times my head exploded after yet another person I assumed was a reasonable human being started seriously questioning vaccinations.
  • The self-important re-labeling of ‘egg-money‘ (which Matchar finally gave me the words for) to ‘side-hustle’ or the cringe-worthy ‘mom-preneurship’; conveniently overlooking the fact that it’s almost always made possible by a professional partner’s ability to support his (almost always ‘his’) family on a single income.

It’s all very academically obvious, when you look at charts like this one from the Pew Institute, that show how different Americans are to Europeans when it comes to how individualistic they are as a nation, and how much of a role they think the social safety net should play.

homeward_bound_rev3And of course, when America sneezes, Canada catches a cold. So many of the same attitudes prevail North of the 49th. Or at least, my experience was that they certainly did in ultra-crunchy Vancouver.  

But I can actually feel the difference between there and here. There is so much less group anxiety.

There are still loads of complaints to be made in the UK about the food security system (horsemeat anyone?), family-friendly workplaces and access to daycare (compared to the rest of Western Europe, that is – it’s still miles ahead of the US, and quite a lot better than Canada), the school system, and the current state of the NHS (which, again, is still nothing short of a miracle compared to the US, and much better than what I experienced in BC).

But that’s the thing. People here do complain. To their friends and neighbours, to their councillors, to their colleagues, to their MPs.

Something needs to be done. Change needs to happen. The English have certainly earned their reputation as a nation of moaners. But they seem to agree that if you’re compelled to spend effort because of a broken system, it would be unthinkable to spend it all on dropping out of the system. It should be fixed, not abandoned.

At least, I hope the attitude that I’ve experienced here so far is the one that prevails. Because the fact that, despite living in our little socialist paradise, the book is resonating here as well, is pretty fucking terrifying.

Work-It

Moms of all stripes are up in arms, as usual, this week thanks to a feature article in the Atlantic (and responses to it) trying to tackle the latest chapter in the war-on-moms-slash-work-life-balance-myth.

The latest can of gas being thrown on the fire being the assertion that it’s anti-feminist to be a Stay-at-Home-Mom. The rant in that article has been about as successful in gaining support for working moms as Critical Mass is at gaining the support for cycling (catching more flies with honey, etc.), but at it’s core, I don’t disagree with the statement.

There is a renewed glorification of domestic-excellence-as-job among the upper-class. And it’s providing ammunition for the war on women.

The increased focus on homemaking by wealthy or well-off women is, on the surface, a natural swing of the pendulum. The feminism of the 80’s and 90’s was all about women achieving economic equality at the expense of a balanced family life. A woman could now opt to have a powerful career, but it was at the expense of having a family. Or if she did have a family, she best keep it so far in the background to her work life, you would struggle to know it existed if you only knew her professionally.

On the surface it seems that the trend to embrace homemaking is a boon for feminism. Educated, powerful, successful women are choosing to attend university in record numbers, charging into male-dominated fields, proving they are good enough and smart enough. And now, these women we once expected to lead the charge into corporate life are making the choice to stay home. To embrace domesticity and revel in giving motherhood and their children undivided attention. To purposefully, consciously, independently assert their femininity by diving headfirst into the job of motherhood.

Great.

Now for how many women is that actually a choice? How many women would rather be working, but can’t afford childcare? Would like to give an employer their all for three, rather than five, days a week, except part-time work isn’t an option. How many women would rather be at home with their children, but must go earn a living outside the house for the financial sake of her family?

We do each and every one of these women who DON’T get to make the choice about whether to be a working mother or not an immense disservice every time we talk about motherhood as a job.

In her cover piece for the Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter makes an interesting comparison between mothering and training for a marathon. An employee who spends a hefty amount of his or her time outside work training for a marathon may be seen as a great planner, dedicated, focused. Another employee who also gets up routinely at 4:00am and develops plans, routines and strategies to take care of family maintenance isn’t likely to be met with the same enthusiasm.

Along similar lines, a woman who prepares for a sabbatical year traveling, exploring, learning is seen as a forward-thinker, someone who will return bringing new ideas, perspectives, renewed energy back to her job. One who may go through the same preparation in order to take a year off from the workforce to focus on her family is often seen by the world of work as a slacker, opting out, wasting her time.

Could part of the problem be the insistence to call motherhood a job, when we know it isn’t?

An employee who has another job is often seen as one who isn’t really committed to their employer, who may have one foot out the door. A potential liability.

Conversely, an employee who has projects, passions, commitments outside work is seen as someone who is tenacious and well-rounded. A real asset.

When we insist on calling stay-at-home parenthood a “job” what we’re really doing is encouraging a system where, when a mother demands a job that fits in with her family life, society can respond with “why? you already have one.” When we fall prey to those stupid “what’s a housewife worth” surveys, trying to put economic value on homemaking when we know nobody earns money to do these things for their own family, we reinforce the notion that work done for one’s own family is worthless.

At its core, creating and nurturing future humans is nothing more than life. Literally, it’s the continuation of the species. And it takes work. Important, challenging, exhausting and rewarding work. But I wish we could all stop doing women everyone such a huge disservice by lying to ourselves and each other by calling it a Job.

Fire Prevention Week

Did you know it’s Fire Prevention Week?

Me neither. I do recall an early-school-year project from my elementary days when we all made “escape plans” for our homes and learned to “stop, drop and roll” our way out of suddenly bursting into flames.

But I hadn’t thought about fire prevention for many years, until I saw this post on Lifehacker about how to properly use a fire extinguisher.

In fact, I haven’t thought about fire prevention or fire extinguishers since I nearly set my parents’ house on fire in 1995.

House Fire Training - Te Horo

Whoops!

It was a summer day (must’ve been a weekday, since my parents were both out at work) and I’d decided to wax my legs.

I had one of those wax kits where you melt the wax in a little copper pot on the stove. So on it went. Except when I tried to pick it up, the potholder slipped and I dumped about a cup of hot wax directly on the element. Which turned into a 3 foot column of flame.

And instead of thinking “I should put a lid on this flame to smother it” I went straight for the extinguisher.

Verdict: I am excellent at using a fire extinguisher.

I also learned the important skill of how to remove fire-retardant dust and dried wax from almost anything. Could be a useful party trick, depending on the type of parties you frequent.

Anyhow, it’s probably as good a time as any to check your smoke alarm batteries, make sure your extinguishers are still charged and ready, and stop-drop-roll just for fun. Also a good time to call your friendly neighbourhood esthetician and make an appointment to have your legs waxed. It’s much safer that way.

Fighting the Wrong Battle with Bullies

I saw quite a few people recently tweeting about a bullying article.

If you don’t care to click through, the reader’s digest version is: a cadre of bullies picked on a girl (Phoebe), using the usual teenaged-girl-bully tactics of social pressure, name calling and other psychological barbs. These bullies have apparently not been curtailed, and they occasionally get physical with their abuse. Eventually, in the face of the bullying, 15-year-old Phoebe went home and hanged herself.

So of course the call to action in the article, and the subsequent agreements in comments and the tweets that were circulating the article, is to do something about bullying. Stop the bullies.

Which is all fine and well, and bullies are a pox on society for sure. But if one thing has become obvious in the last few years, it’s that there are increased venues and formats for intimidation, and bullies are exceedingly well-versed in how to use them. In fact, bullies can be more effective than ever, because what else to teenagers have to do besides figure out new and exciting ways to do things their parents haven’t caught on to yet?

So while I’m absolutely in favor of anti-bullying campaigns, I think there’s a huge issue that’s not being addressed enough, especially when it comes to girls: why are we not teaching kids how to cope with bullies?

Teaching coping mechanisms and self-worth is far from an endorsement of bullying. But it’s never too early to teach kids a bit of Emotional Intelligence. They may as well learn early that the only person someone can control is him or herself. Sadly, bullies may never stop, no matter what “anti-bullying” programs are put in place. But teaching kids some self-worth, self-awareness and an innate knowledge that there will always be people who don’t like you and are incredibly mean – but it has to do more with them than you – might help kids like Phoebe start to recognize that death isn’t the only alternative to dealing with a bully.

And I say this is extra important for girls, because girls are much more ruthless with psychological abuse when it comes to bullying. All the more reason to equip girls with the mental tools to cope with it.

So to the commenters and criers out for anti-bullying and teaching kids to act with compassion; I’d implore you not to forget to add teaching some coping skills onto that. I’m awfully skeptical about anyone’s ability to stop bullies. But I think we can instill the tools in our daughters to stop another suicide like Phoebe’s.

Watch Your Nog(gin) this Winter

When I was invited to an event from the fine folks at Preventable (@preventable on twitter) last night on winter sport safety, I found the timing quite fortuitous. I’m heading to Sun Peaks over New Years for a ski vacation, and being the utter wuss that I am, I was definitely interested in knowing how to keep my self intact and injury free while I’m there.

snowboard

The point behind the Preventable campaign (run by the Community Against Preventable Injuries) is to have us all thinking a bit more about how, when and where we place ourselves at risk. It’s all about what British Columbians can do to prevent injury, not what they shouldn’t do.

I’ll admit, I’ve been participating in snow sports in one form or another for the better part of the last two decades, and I’ve never ever worn a helmet. Biking, sure. Rollerblading, yep. Snowboarding? No.

It’s not for any good reason – I’ve just never thought I needed one. I don’t ride aggressively, I don’t go out in terrible conditions, I don’t bother going through the trees and I’ve never even sniffed at the back country.

Turns out, none of that actually matters.

You probably remember actress Natasha Richardson‘s fatal ski accident from last spring, caused by a seemingly innocuous fall on the bunny hill. It’s estimated by the Brain Injury Association of Canada that nearly 50% of all skiing and snowboarding head injuries could be prevented by simply wearing a helmet.

Of course there are plenty of other injuries one could sustain through an accident on the slopes – but why make brain injury one of them?

In the meantime, I’m now going to try and right this wrong (because I’m awfully fond of my brain, addled as it may be) and get a helmet to see me through this season’s round of adventures on the slopes.

Anyone have any recommendations for favourite helmet models (ASTM or Snell certified, natch) or local vendors?

You Keep Using that Word

… I do not think it means what you think it means!

I’m talking about Sustainability. The latest in a long series of buzzwords that’s been appropriated to make people feel better about their choices – not the first, and certainly not the last. But definitely the one I find most annoying right now.

sus·tain·a·ble (s?-st?’n?-b?l)
adj.
1. Capable of being sustained.
2. Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment: sustainable agriculture.
3. To keep up or keep going, as an action or process: to sustain a conversation.

There are dozens of programs out there that claim to operate under the banner of sustainability. The problem comes when you actually look at these programs, and realize their “sustainability” only exists in a vacuum. And the world just doesn’t operate that way.

Two conversations about sustainability I’ve had lately revolve around agriculture and real-estate. One promoting sustainability, one illustrating unsustainability. Both, after scratching the surface, dead wrong.

Sustainable Food Program

I recently heard of an initiative up at my Alma Mater, SFU, as they’re trying to bring “sustainable food” to the hill. In partnership with the Fraser Valley Food Network’s South Fraser Harvest Box program, SFU Local Food is bringing Harvest Boxes up the mountain once a month for students to purchase. Local food, from local farms, for locals to eat. Hooray for supporting sustainable agriculture!

Except, this program is subsidized by the United Way and the Fraser Health Authority.

Suddenly, it doesn’t look so sustainable.

If this program requires funding from the aforementioned organizations to survive, then what’s sustainable about it? The program promises to give farmers a fair wage while bringing affordable food to residents at SFU. If there needs to be fund raising intervention in the middle of the process, it means either the farmers can’t afford to farm & distribute on what people are able to pay, or people are unwilling to pay for the true cost of their food.

The program touts a discount of 2-3x what one would pay in a grocery store for similar products – why does it need to be so staggeringly inexpensive? And this is not just for students, as advertised on the website. Anyone living at SFU (including those in the half-million dollar condos) may participate.

A truly sustainable system would be able to support access to fresh, local food, while paying farmers and distributors a fair wage, and ensuring those who really can’t afford it are still able to participate.

Hiding the true cost of food under the umbrella of “charitable subsidy” is certainly not doing sustainability any favours.

What happens when the funding disappears because of cuts, or just someone’s “better idea” for allocating dollars? Or when someone moves away from SFU, having no idea what the true cost of sustainable food is? My guess is they go back to purchasing unsustainable food.

All this program has done is given some farmers and eaters the proverbial fish, rather than teaching them how to operate in a sustainable system.

That Crash, it’s coming, any day now…

On the flip side, I’ve seen a couple graphs floating around about the “unsustainability” of Vancouver’s real estate prices, based on whether the average Vancouver resident can afford to own a home. The lament is loud… “real-estate is unsustainable, since locals can’t afford to live here!”

Wrong.

About one-million Vancouverites (the population within the city limits) beg to differ. They can certainly afford to live here – they already do. What they can’t afford to do is buy real estate here.

Anyone who’s done the most cursory of learning about financial planning should know that owning real estate is not necessary to be fiscally secure today and into the future. What is necessary is paying no more for housing (including rent/mortgage, heating, insurance and taxes if applicable) than 35% of one’s household net income and saving another 10% for retirement. I know plenty of people who are able to do that on one income, never mind the “three incomes” the Canadian Housing Price Chart states are necessary to afford a mortgage in Vancouver.

As for the housing market, if you believe that Vancouver residents purchasing homes are both necessary and sufficient to sustain the market, you’re trapped in that vacuum again.

A huge proportion Over half of residences in downtown Vancouver are owned by foreign investors. Property values skyrocketed in the mid 1990’s as wealthy Asian investors moved their money into foreign assets in anticipation of Hong Kong going back to China. And since then, as Vancouver’s appeal has grown as an international destination, and as the city consistently ranks in just about any top 10 list of “best places to live in the world” it’s not surprising that our fair area has the wealthiest postal code in the country and our premium properties are in high demand.

The only way a crash is going to come is if renters are so unable to afford their homes that investors are forced to sell at a loss, because they’re no longer able to carry the property with the income it’s generating. Considering vacancy rates here have been hovering around 2% for as long as I can remember, that seems unlikely. Even with the recent economic crash, there was only a slight correction in late 2008/early 2009, and values are quickly climbing again.

Is anything sustainable?

Really, I have no idea. Everything comes at a cost – whether it’s the environmental impact of making batteries in China (one of the most toxic manufacturing processes in existence) for your electric car to “save the planet,” or subsidizing food cost and distribution to bribe people into thinking they’re making sustainable food choices, to confusing an idea of resource allocation “fairness” with actual market sustainability in terms of who we think should own things.

I think we have to make the best choices we can, based on what we know. But before you blindly follow something because someone has tagged it “(un)sustainable,” perhaps step out of the vacuum and look at the whole picture. You may be surprised at what true sustainability really looks like.

Apparently No, Sometimes We Can’t

I spent the past week in Chicago, which coincided with the final few days’ run-up to the decision on their bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.

I’d forgotten how crazy Vancouver had gotten about the Olympic bid in 2001 July 2003, with the huge effort by government and businesses to show their support and that they “backed the bid.” Oprah and the Obamas flew to Copenhagen (amidst plenty of controversy) to communicate their desire to host the games.

Posters and signs covered the city, all displaying the logo of the would-be 2016 games. Statues had been adorned with faux medals. Friday – IOC voting day – had been declared a civic holiday, so citizens could head down to the Celebration Plazas and watch the announcement live on big screens. The water in the fountain at Daley Plaza was dyed orange for the occasion.

I remember being in a similar place in 2001 2003 – I was among the crowd at GM Place, watching the bid announcement when the IOC was voting between Peyongchang, Salzburg and Vancouver. I still remember the exact intonation of Jacques Rogge’s voice, as he announced the winner.

I remember Nancy Green-Raine exploding, and bouncing up and down like a sugar-fueled six-year old.

I remember then-mayor Sam Sullivan beaming and shaking hands.

I remember my roommate at the time, who’d actually been the one to get the tickets, moaning in misery that we’d actually won. Being anti-games, she was hoping for hefty dose of early-morning schadenfreude.

And I remember looking back up at the jumbo-tron, with the images of thousands of disappointed Koreans, wondering what it would’ve been like had Vancouver lost.

Now I know.

It looks a little something like this:
 

I had some time to kill after meetings on Friday, before my flight, so I went on one of those “hop-on/hop-off” tour buses, and listened to the driver rant about how those damn signs need to come down NOW so the city can forget their humiliation and move on.

I also listened to the news pundits turn on a dime, and go from praising the Obama’s empassioned speechcraft and delivery to lambasting them for “delivering what amounted to another campaign speech from last November and had nothing to do with the bid for the games” (huh?).

And I watched thousands of Chicago citizens wander off, signs dragging, looking a bit blank as if they weren’t quite sure what to do with the rest of their rainy Friday.

It could’ve been Vancouver. And as a proud Vancovuerite pro-games Olympic afficionado, I’m awfully glad it wasn’t.