Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Your Mind

Occupy your mind

So they kicked the occupiers out of Victoria Park on the strength of a by-law. It doesn't seem right, somehow, does it? Not considering all the other by-laws that could use a little reinforcing from time to time. Still, there we are; the protesters were unceremoniously ousted and their belongings tossed, all without a violent retaliation or threats to occupy city hall or much of anything. It could well be that the London version of the Occupy movement has folded up and gone home.

What are we to make of this local experiment in civil disobedience? Did the activists achieve any of their goals? Hard to say, in part because it's a little difficult to tell exactly what the goals were. The Occupy movement is clearly an expression of the frustration felt by thousands around the western world that they have been excluded from the wealth of the super-rich. But aside from a sentiment that they want some of those riches too, there really seems to be very little focus to this movement.

We are a country at war - soldiers and civilians are dying, homes and lands destroyed, and the war is costing a fortune. The environment is collapsing, unemployment is rising and personal privacy is being invaded at every turn. Poverty is rampant and human rights are being eroded; children are abused and there is corruption and shocking dishonesty in the halls of power. There is, in other words, no shortage of things to be angry and outraged about; no lack of reasons to take to the streets in a show of protest, solidarity, and civil disobedience.

In order for any movement to have even the slightest chance of being noticed, much less taken seriously and drawing some favourable response from the great, silent majority, it must first win the hearts and minds of the people it’s trying to engage, and being unhappy because not everybody has the same amount of money is not doing it. Where are the songs, the poetry, the writers and the artists? Where are the great orators, the righteous, angry leaders and philosophers? How can we honestly expect a social movement without leaders and thinkers to drive any influence for significant change?

As things stand the Occupy movement is in danger of becoming silly - a camp-out for the wanna-be Starbucks generation. If this slide into insignificance is to be halted or even reversed, I recommend an immediate application of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, set to the music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, laced with several doses of "Steal this Book" by Abby Hoffman. Better still, cultivate your own prophets, artists, philosophers, and visionaries, pick a cause, then commit to it and make it stick.

None of this will be easy, but some day you may be able to say that you made a significant contribution to making the world a truly better, cleaner, more equitable, honest and harmonious place.

Good luck, and Peace.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

M3 and the Royal Wedding

Report to the Agency:
I must apologize for the long absence in my reporting, but I am confident that you will understand my reasons once I explain. As you know better than most, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middelton has been one of the most important events to come to the Royal Family in many years, and one of the top concerns of their Majesties, MI5, Scotland Yard and Interpol has been the security of all concerned. When I received the call a few months ago that my service were needed, and that my mission would be top secret until after the ceremony I was, of course, immediately ready to serve. The problem was simple enough: While Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Phillip and their extensive staff were at the ceremony at Westminster Abby, somebody had to guard the Royal Corgies. I confess that at first I was not thrilled by an assignment that initially appeared to be glorifies puppy-sitting, but once it was explained to me by the head of the K9 unit – also known as the Alsatian Guard, even though the force is largely made up of English bulldogs - that I and C1 would be exclusively responsible for the safety of Her Majesty's favourite dogs, I accepted the assignment proudly.
More about this later. And next time I will detail my attempt to stop Princess Beatrice from wearing as a hat - or "fascinator" what was actually intended to be a toy treat for the Royal Corgies.
Yours, as always.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reason and syntax

In response to Jeff and Lindz at

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I would offer up a gentle reminder that the purpose of syntax and the myriad of related rules and regulations is not intended to stifle creativity, communication, or any of the delightfully whimsical flights of verbal invention that pass for “dialogue” these days. The rules of syntax exist to enhance and clarify communication – verbal or written. The problem with sweeping away all the rules in an effort to remove the restraints of creativity is that without structure we have ignorance and chaos – as it is in politics, so it is in grammar.
You may have forgotten what happened to the literacy and numeracy skills of high school students in this country when the rules were removed in favour of creativity and in an effort to avoid harming the fragile egos of our nation’s students. The result of all this ego-friendly, non-restrictive creativity is that colleges and universities are having to roll out large and expensive remedial writing and math programs in order to bring high school graduates up to some sort of minimal standard that will enable then to at least begin to comprehend and engage their various curricula. The current trend in education and general language use takes away from students the ability to experience the pleasure of crafting a graceful sentence, which I think borders on the criminal.
Picasso and Vonnegut knew the rules of their respective arts so well and so intimately that they knew how and when to bend and break them to enchance their creativity – but they knew the rules. Breaking the rules is not for amateurs… don’t try this at home because havoc will ensue, and you won’t know from whence it came, nor what it means.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eschew the Cliche

Business writing; plain and simple.

On September 1st of this year, Canadian journalist Robert Fulford published in the National Post a column called The Most Irritating Phrases in the English Language. The column is an erudite rant against the use of banal phrases and exhausted clichés currently so much in vogue among political pundits, business writers and far too many journalists who should know better.
Quoting British writer Jeremy Butterfield's book: “Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare,” Fulford places the expression "at the end of the day" right at the head of the "Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English Language." Damp squid, by the way, comes, according to Fulford, from the mistake people make when they want to describe something as a failure and use the term “damp squib,” meaning a firework that fails to go off. Misunderstanding the root of the metaphor, they pronounce or spell it “squid.”
Along with “the bottom line” and “going forward,” surely “at the end of the day” has to be one of the most overused and, as a result, almost meaningless, expressions in common currency in business communication. But these dregs fished from what Fulford refers to as "… a tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions," are not the only offenders to dog the long-suffering copy editor. “At a team, moving forward together, into the future,” marries three others exhausted business clichés, and the expression “sea change” has got to be close to the top of my personal list of expressions I love to hate. “Sea change” is used by business communicators who want to suggest a dramatic new change in a company’s direction, often from imminent failure to sudden success. The fact that the expression has found its way into business English from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” where Prospero uses it to refer to decomposition caused by the sea, confers a nice ironic twist to the current, intended meaning of “sea change.”
As someone who has spent most of his career either writing, editing or teaching business writing, Fulford’s column and Jeremy Butterfield's book are among some rare and wonderful reminders that the language of business and politics does not have to be irritatingly hackneyed, predictable and, far too often, incorrect.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


London Free Press, August 12, 2008

Shortly before the opening of the Beijing Olympics, the headline “Our Olympic heroes” appeared in an Ontario newspaper over a story that profiled some local athletes who were preparing to compete in the Olympics.
No-one can argue that the athletes who compete in the Olympic Games don’t put forth enormous effort in order to reach the goal of competing in the Games. Many of the athletes make great personal investments in their goal in terms of physical training, finances, delayed educational opportunities and relationships that are put on hold. But are they really heroes?
Since the 9/11attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, it seems that North American society has taken to calling people working in all sorts of professions “heroes.” From firefighters who respond to emergency calls every day, and police officers who patrol Canada’s cities and highways, to Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan and now to Olympic athletes, people in any number of professions are being called heroes. The term “heroes” is being used so often to describe people who are doing what some might consider little more than their jobs, that it’s becoming easy to forget what the word “hero” really means, and how a person might earn that title.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a hero is “A man, now also a woman, distinguished by the performance of extraordinarily brave or noble deeds…” also “[Someone] admired or venerated for his or her achievements and noble qualities in any field.”
It’s perhaps the phrase “distinguished by the performance of extraordinarily brave or noble deeds…” that make it a little difficult to think of people who go about the day-to-day performance of their duties as “heroes.” There is unquestionably a very large element of courage involved in serving as a police officer, soldier or firefighter, or indeed even in nursing or farming or construction work, and many other fields of endeavour. But surely being courageous is not the same as being heroic.
When Canadian climber Andrew Brash, for instance, tossed aside his dream of summiting Mount Everest in 2006, just some 200 metres from his goal, in order to rescue climber Lincoln Hall who was discovered half-clothed, sitting on the edge of a cliff in the Death Zone of the mountain, and just days after climber David Sharp was left to die by others, Brash surely performed “an extraordinarily brave and noble deed” - a heroic deed - and earned the right to be called a hero and to receive the medals and commendations given to heroes. Being a mountain climber made him courageous, but it was sacrificing his dream and risking his life to save another climber that made him a hero.
If we’re going to refer to athletes getting ready to compete at the Olympic Games as heroes, then what are we going to call people like Andrew Brash?
The indiscriminate use of the term “hero” to describe someone whose job entails some degree of risk or exceptional dedication – a coal miner, for instance, or an athlete – diminishes the ability of the word to honour those who go far beyond the call of duty to perform an extraordinary feat of self-sacrifice in the service on humankind, and indeed diminishes the acts of those who performed heroic deeds before the word entered into such common currency.
Take, for example the story of Sergeant Thomas (Tommy) Ricketts. Born in Newfoundland, Ricketts was only seventeen, and a private soldier in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War when, On October 14, 1918, he and the rest of his machine gun crew were pinned down and out of ammunition in a battle near Ledgehem, Belgium. Ricketts volunteered to run across 100 yards of open field to gather more ammunition for his crew’s Lewis gun. Returning over the same dangerous ground, Ricketts and a fellow soldier captured a number of German weapons and prisoners. For his uncommon valour, Ricketts was promoted to sergeant, and awarded the Victoria Cross, the youngest soldier ever to receive this important military honour.
Sergeant Ricketts, like Andrew Brash, performed “an extraordinarily brave and noble deed,” and was a hero.
It may be true that we live in a time that needs new heroes, but misusing the word is not going to meet that need.

– 30 -

Sunday, May 04, 2008

For the Sunday Edition

Hello Michael,
I was listening to the iPod version of your story about the plastic bag in the tree outside your house, and your observations about the need for people to cut back on their use of plastic bags. For several years my wife and I have used cloth bags when we shop for groceries. In fact, I can’t recall the last time groceries or other shopping purchases were brought home in a plastic bag, and as we have no dog, there is no need for us to have plastic bags on hand for scooping purposes although I will confess to using them for cleaning out the cat litter used by our two cats. All things being equal, we really ought to be a household pretty much devoid of plastic bags. And yet. On the inside of the pantry door we have one of those tube-shaped containers sold by IKEA designed to store plastic bags, and that tube is always crammed full to over-flowing. Every time I take a bag out to clean the cat litter, or on rare occasions to dispose of wet garbage, I expect to see the level of bags in the tube drop. But it doesn’t. Like the storied magic purse that produces an unlimited amount of coins, this tube apparently generates its own endless supply of plastic bags, mocking our attempts at eliminating the wicked things from our lives. Perhaps – as with the question of where do all the vanished socks go when they disappear from the clothes dryer - the answer to the question of where do plastic bags go when they are blow down the street or out of people’s trees is that they mysteriously wind up in tubes such as ours all over the country to continue their malignant presence in our consumer driven world. I would love to get rid of the tube, but I confess I’m a little afraid of it now. If I didn’t have the tube, where else in my house would all those plastic bags show up?Please help. The cats are doing the best they can, but it’s not enough.
Otte Rosenkrantz
London, Ontario

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Muffin Man and Canadian Road Rage

[The soundtrack for this blog, BTW, is "Good Day" by Luce.]

I take some pride in my driving record. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but I have – touch wood – so far managed to avoid serious accidents and ruinous speeding tickets. But it’s also true that there are times when I could perhaps be a little more attentive to my driving than I am. This was brought home to me a few days ago when I encountered what felt like a quintessential case of Canadian road rage on my way to work.
After an early morning fill-up at a gas station I had to pull back into two-lane traffic close to an intersection. An Urban Assault Vehicle (SUV) had stopped to let my little Saturn in, and I nosed into traffic, unable to see very much because of the looming vehicle blocking my view. As I eased into the left turn lane, thinking I was free and clear, I heard the squeal of tires. I glanced up in the rear-view, and saw a rusted out old Chev slide up behind me. In the split second that can seem an eternity before an accident I thought for sure he was going to hit me, and braced myself for the impact. But it didn’t come. Fortunately the young man in the black toque at the wheel had hit the brakes just in time.
Much relieved, I waved to him to show my gratitude and by way of an apology, but he wasn’t having it. He was seriously pissed, and while I watched in amazement he rolled down his window and lobbed… a muffin… at me. Having apparently just come from the Tim Horton’s up the street he had, in his moment of road rage, reached for the first thing he could use to vent his frustration at me, and that thing was a Tim’s frosted something-or-other. I know it was frosted because of the streak it left on my back window.
When I told the story to an American friend later in the day he doubled up in laughter and pointed out how very Canadian the experience had been: road rage Canadian style, with a breakfast muffin as the weapon of retaliation. “Had that happened in Los Angeles or Texas, you might be having bullet holes in your car plugged, instead of cleaning whipped cream off your windshield.”
All I can say is that I’m just happy it wasn’t a “fruit explosion”.
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