On the nature of humans…

30 11 2013

Are you quick to judge?

Prone to speak before you’ve checked the facts?

No? Must be just me then…

Of course, it’s not something I’m proud of, or that I choose to do – I do tend to look before I leap… but there are times, I confess.

We all seem to have assumptions and pre-conceptions. They range from “flames tend to be hot – best not to test this specific one with my finger” through to “it’s best not to trust politicians  – at least while they’re alive”.

Yesterday my colleague told me that he’d heard something on the illustrious CBC Radio 1. There’d been a piece about how the Canadian government had engaged a consultant to teach Canadian businessmen how to speak with “British accents” to help their negotiations run more smoothly. Naturally this spun off into a self-fuelled rant as we fed off each other, and we agreed that it was ridiculous (first clue), and that any North American trying to “put a cockney at ease” by speaking in their own accent would likely turn out at least as bad as Dick van Dyke‘s “Bert” in Mary Poppins. Worse – they’d likely be knifed or otherwise assaulted at some point in the proceedings.

I of course, being all superior and pious, had additional issues with the mere phrase “British accent”. I kept bleating on about there being four countries in Great Britain – not including the various islands (Yes – the UK is the “mainland”… 😉 ) – and that each of them had more accents per square mile than Canada had voters. Or possibly even trees for that matter. This was all easy self-reinforcing bias, and supported the pre-existing assumptions that (i) governments in general were keen to spend our tax money on silly things, (ii) teaching anyone an accent was inherently going to fail – Meryl Streep‘s excellent rendition of Maggie notwithstanding – and most importantly (iii) Dick van Dyke may not be able to act, but he makes a great penguin.

Not a proud moment in QE’s life. Nor, I’m further ashamed to say, an uncommon one.

Fast forward to today when a friend posted on Facebook the following story:

Town in Montana changes its name to Banff Alberta Canada

CBC: According to Mr. Landers, Banff Alberta Canada, Montana is not near the mountains but it does have a great local theatre company for tourists to enjoy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ridiculous, right? (Déjà vu!)

But wait –  let’s not forget about Leavenworth, WA

Wikipedia: Leavenworth’s main street reflects its modelling on a Bavarian village

Reinventing the entire town as a Bavarian village just to increase tourism is completely batty, right?! Insisting that industry giants like Subway, Starbucks, etc. use signage “in keeping” with the theme (carved wooden hanging signs as in the above photo) is ludicrous, yes? Can’t be true… but it is.

So renaming a ghost-town in Montana to “Banff Alberta Canada” to lure unwary tourists isn’t really any less believable is it? And there of course enters “the bias”. The assumption that well, without putting too fine a point on it, it’s just the sort of thing “the Americans” would do, isn’t it? 🙂

It took all of a few minutes for someone to point out “You do know it’s a satirical program, right?” (I’ll forgive them the omission of the “me” at the end of programme, under the circumstances).

Ah! Burn…

I felt ashamed more than embarrassed. I was so totally ready to believe that this little town would rename itself. And based on what? Prejudice. Assumption that we wouldn’t do that, but they would. Us and them – the core of prejudice. I hadn’t even bothered to listen to the whole piece, and though the photos of the presenters looked a bit glib, I didn’t check further into their programme.

Then a thought…

Yup – sure enough, the CBC 1 programme to which my earnest colleague had referred earlier was the same one responsible for Banff Alberta Canada!

Canadian industry delegates learn to speak with British accent to improve trade relations

CBC: According to Mr. Theodore, the Canadian accent is perceived as unintellegent in the United Kingdom. (iStockPhoto)

Well – don’t I feel silly?!

Of course – the spirit of a good laugh is for it to be believable enough that the punchline is unexpected and funny. Because my colleague had himself believed it to be “straight”, and it played to all the accepted stereotypes, I too fell hook, line and sinker to his retelling. But now I know this programme is actually a satirical one… I’m actually pretty underwhelmed. If you were listening to it, knowing it was a satirical show, it’s a pretty blunt instrument! Or is that my prejudice speaking again?

But these deeply flawed aspects of human nature (at least as far as they are represented in my own case) are only part of the picture. Thankfully!

This morning I took the devil dog for a walk around the local duck ponds. Winter is well on its way, and the deciduous trees are all but bare now. But not quite…

Bigger berry Bauble Christmas cheer

Some local wit had placed about a dozen Christmas-tree baubles on various otherwise sparse trees around the ponds. Nothing too outlandish. No tinsel, for example. No garish lights as the municipality chooses to use elsewhere. Just one bauble per chosen tree, evenly spaced around the park. Yet somehow, these cheap dollar-store ornaments were uplifting as I trudged around in the rain. Someone had thought to do it. Do something unexpected. Worthy of note (at least by me). A bit like when soon-to-be-obsolete pennies appeared on the park benches.

What're you looking' at?

What’re you lookin’ at?

I met a couple of other locals on their morning constitution. One (who I have a sneaky suspicion may have had some involvement) agreed with me that they were a jolly addition to the park, and added a festive air. Another – a middle-aged lady with incongruous headphones disappearing into her pocketed iPod, and a keen and adept hand with mobile phone photography – asked me if I’d noticed the curious additions to the treescape. She too had been photographing them. Perhaps she has her own blog… We chatted briefly and went on our separate ways, smiling and happy at this brief most human of connections.

And as I walked home still grinning, I realised that perhaps this Christmas, if I really tried, I could perhaps be less cynical. These cheap plastic baubles had already caused me to have two friendly conversations with strangers. Even better – somewhere near me lived a kindred spirit. Someone who did weird stuff just for the hell of it. I wondered if it was the same person who had put the pennies out last year. I was in a good mood… and there hadn’t even been chocolate involved!

It would seem that despite my previous assumptions and prejudice, there really can be such a thing as Christmas cheer. A non-commercial, non-marketed, simple, pure, goodwill to others.

Humans can after all still do little things that bring pleasure and happiness to others. It could be an unexpected bauble in a tree (I’m willing to overlook the fact that it’s technically littering), or it could be a few dollars in a Sally Army fund-raising kettle.

But it’s not even December yet. Bah – humbug… 😀

Death and all his friends

18 11 2013

So we live in a pretty nice crescent – totally residential, and with parks both inside and outside the crescent. There is a crossing to allow easy pedestrian access from the inner park to the outer one, crossing what should be a sedate residential street. The crossing is well marked with good visibility and signing, leaving nobody in any doubt to its presence… especially if you are local, as indeed 99% of car drivers taking the route would be. Unfortunately though, it is used as a bit of a “cut-through” as I have come to learn “short cuts” are known in these parts. This means that a large percentage of even local drivers speed around the crescent safe in the knowledge that the road network exists for their usage alone. I have observed that this is especially true as the driver matures and gains those oaky undertones. You know – the ones that help mask the incontinence and heavy smoking.

So today I took the dog for a walk and made use of said crossing. A man in his late 60’s screeched to a halt (at least that part of my story is positive) mere inches away from me as I made the crossing.

“What the hell are you doing crossing right now?” he yelled through his open window – apparently in all seriousness. Plainly my appearance on this crossing – clearly marked and signed, you’ll recall – was not anticipated.

I made the universally understood, puzzled “WTF?” expression, outstretched my arms to illustrate the clearly marked crossing I was on, and said “It’s a pedestrian crossing!” Suddenly unsure whether this possibly English term would be fully understood, I added “, you dork!” to illustrate I was not totally culturally insensitive.

“Well get a move on and get out of the way!” he yelled.

Suddenly struck with indecision as to whether to continue or turn back, I turned to face his people-carrier, stroked my chin, looked to the sky and said “I’m not so sure any more…”

At this point he made a wide turn to pass me on the other side of the road, at which point “Wanker!” seemed the only appropriate adieu on my part…

I was hit by a car on a light-controlled crossing (PELICAN they were called in those days) when I was about 15. Taken for an unplanned ride on a car bonnet for about 50m. Luckily I suffered no physical injuries. It has however made me particularly gnarly to deal with if you don’t respect the pedestrian crossings that I use in later life. I have yet to go as far as an old work colleague who actually stoved in a car bonnet when someone barely missed them at a crossing.

But it’s always an option…

Lest we forget… what it is we’re trying to remember.

11 11 2013

Listening to CBC’s coverage of Remembrance Day (it’s a public holiday here in BC – not just the nearest Sunday as in the UK).
Interesting how WW I was seen as “a grand adventure” at the time. Boys as young as 9 years old trying to sign up, pretending to be 18. Boys as young as 10 actually succeeding! Wearing an older brother’s clothes. The lack of TV or the internet hid the true horrors to most, unless they were directly involved. The idea was alluring – the reality brutal. A cruel way to grow up.

Just started reading John Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Didn’t realise he was the Governor General of Canada for a while. A very British book, yet page 1 mentions Vancouver. Kizmet! It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for years. My copy is an ex-school reader. Printed in 1951. Issued three times to schoolgirls in Pontefract, W. Workshire. Fell into someone’s “missing” list in 1954. It was originally written in 1915, and there’s definitely that air of high adventure, going off and fighting wars as almost “cool” – an urge thankfully more often filled by extreme sports today.

But that still raises the question why we seem so genetically pre-disposed (even under more sedate circumstances) to risk the lives that are so briefly given to our custodianship. Perhaps it’s as simple as a quote I recently read, attributed to feminist writer Rita Mae Brown: “If you’re afraid to die, you’re afraid to live. You can’t have one without the other.” We love to play games. We like to win. But you cannot win without incurring the risk to lose. To risk ones life – the ultimate wager – is to perhaps truly win one’s life. Perhaps we no longer need to fight to the death, thanks to ever more inventive “extreme activities”, but we do perhaps need the risk – or at least the perception of it – to truly feel alive.

Whatever their reasons for choosing (or being forced) to go to war – many did not return. I am saddened this year to read more nationalism than ever being expressed both here and in the UK around remembrance day. It has steadily become more about “supporting today’s veterans” than remembering the futility of war. There are huge centennial events being planned for 2014. Ieper/Ypres is expecting a bumper tourist trade for the whole 4 year period. The UK is planting millions of poppies across the whole country. I flew through Dusseldorf airport this last week, proudly wearing my poppy. I wore it to commemorate all those who lost their lives in war – particularly WW I – not as some nationalistic jingoism. It was not intended as a snub to the German people, though one older security checker gave me a gruff snort when he saw it. They felt no less horror and loss than did the allies. I object to history programmes referring indiscriminately to “Nazi troops” in reference to WW II, when in fact the bulk of German combatants were decent, honourable men fighting for their country just as their opponents were. The Nazis were in political power, but many of those dying in German uniforms were no more politically in favour than their enemies.

Let us remember.

Remember the fallen. All the fallen.

Remember that it was politicians who sent them to die and continue to do so.

Remember that it is power, greed and money that drives the decisions to conquer and invade, and for others to fight back in defence.

But remember also that many are oppressed by their own politicians and struggle to find tools other than weapons to resist.

Remember the solitary figure that stood in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square, and caused it to stop. A tank!

Remember how Gandhi sat and spun cotton… and evicted the British from India.

Remember that a gun is just an elaborate machine… that requires a human hand to turn it into a weapon. The same hand that can turn a cricket bat – designed for fun – into a weapon.

Remember we are the problem. Only we can be the solution.

Remember to choose.