Success redefined

The Globe and Mail has chosen Canada’s 2008 nation builder:  Jean Vanier.

Jean VanierM. Vanier was instrumental in changing the way that mentally handicapped people are cared for. In L’Arche communities, founded by M. Vanier, volunteers live round the clock with the mentally handicapped people they serve.

M. Vanier is a devout Roman Catholic. It seems to me that L’Arche (= “the ark”) follows a monastic model of ministry:  devoting one’s entire life to carrying out God’s work in a community set apart from the way people ordinarily live.

The L’Arche model is certainly rooted in the Gospels:  specifically, in Jesus’ admonition to serve “the least of these, my brethren“. Vanier tells the Globe and Mail that he wants to announce a message:

That people who are weak have something to bring us, that they are important people and it’s important to listen to them. In some mysterious way, they change us. Being in a world of the strong and powerful, you collect attitudes of power and hardness and invulnerability. [… But] it is vulnerability that brings us together.”

Vanier maintains that we need to redefine success:

Recently, a couple came to him with their one-and-a-half-year-old son, who had an undiagnosed disorder and screamed incessantly. Mr. Vanier asked the mother how she was, and she muttered, “Okay.” He asked the father, a military man, the same question. “Sometimes,” the father said, “I want to throw him out the window.”

Mr. Vanier leans forward in his chair. “And I said to him, ‘I understand. I’ve lived the same thing.'”

He is referring to Lucien, a severely handicapped man who used to live with him and whose endless shrieking began with his mother’s death and rarely stopped. Mr. Vanier often returns to Lucien in his writing: Suffering through that noise helped him understand not only his own limitations but what the families of disabled people must go through, isolated as they often are.

“It obviously penetrated through all my protective systems and awoke anguish, and I could see violence within me,” he says. “If I hadn’t been in a community, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Lucien died a few years ago; his screaming never ceased entirely. It is easy, when hearing this story, to understand why L’Arche is always facing a shortage of volunteers. Most people would find such a life too taxing to endure.

What Mr. Vanier finds surprising is that very often it’s the volunteers’ parents who don’t want them to work at L’Arche.

“Parents will say, ‘We gave you education, university, and now you want to live with these people?'” […]

This leads to one of the cornerstones of Mr. Vanier’s philosophy, which is essentially that we’ve lost track of the different ways to measure a successful life. [… Vanier muses,] “How to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together?” […]

One of those who came and stayed was Cariosa Kilcommons. Disillusioned with her pre-med studies, Ms. Kilcommons dropped out of St. Francis Xavier University more than 20 years ago to live at the L’Arche home in Cape Breton. Four years later, she came to stay in Trosly; now, she returns to her family home in Pincher Creek, Alta., only for the occasional holiday.

“It was pretty radical,” she says of her decision to make L’Arche her life. “But I was filled with inner certitude. It’s true that a lot is asked of us here, but we get a lot back. The hours are long, but the experience is so rich.”

Certain public figures maintain that the world would be a better place without religion. And it’s true that religion does a lot of harm in the world. Some of the most prominent religious leaders stand for intolerance, division, and violence (whether overt or covert).

Maybe those religious leaders have absorbed the wrong definition of success. They pursue publicity, glory, money, deference, and access to the corridors of power. Perhaps they also mobilize people for ministry. But it’s difficult to keep one’s motives pure when those things begin to blend together.

How many of those leaders would show the same dedication to ministry if God called them to toil anonymously in a L’Arche community?

Jean Vanier hasn’t sought the public spotlight. Nor has he developed a personal fiefdom, where he can reign as a little pope. Instead, he has poured out his life in service to people who might otherwise be forgotten by the world.

Live from Starbucks, Peterborough, Ontario

I haven’t blogged much recently, which is unusual for me — even at Christmas time. I figured it was time to check in with y’all.

I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Peterborough, Ontario. That’s my home town. Population of approximately 65,000, when I left here in 1986. It has grown some since then. As of 2006,

the census metropolitan area (CMA) had a population of 116,570. It presently ranks as the 33rd and smallest CMA in Canada.

Metropolitan Peterborough. Hah!

Benjamin (nebcanuck) is living in Peterborough these days, studying at Trent University. My parents and one of my sisters live here, too. So I still visit Metropolitan Peterborough several times per year.

Which brings me to Starbucks. I found out that if you have a Starbucks card, you can get two hours of wireless high-speed internet access each day — free! This is convenient, since my parents don’t have internet access, and I usually stay with them when I’m in town.

The Starbucks internet access also comes in handy when I travel to Winnipeg, as I frequently do for work. (I’m part of a team negotiating a self-government agreement with a First Nation in Manitoba.)

Yesterday, Ilona and I celebrated Christmas with one of my sisters in Port Perry, Ontario. Port Perry is about 45 minutes southwest of Metropolitan Peterborough.

Not all the news from home is happy. My Dad’s brother died on Christmas Eve at 9:20 p.m. We won’t be staying in Peterborough for the funeral, which is Monday. But we’ll stay for the “visitation” at the funeral home Sunday afternoon.

Uncle Bill was in his seventies and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was a lively fellow up until he got ill:  an amateur photography enthusiast (in the pre-computer days when cameras used actual film, and were operated manually) who also taught square dancing classes. He had a degree in music and he sang in the church choir for fifty years.

Uncle Bill also used to build chairs with wire frames, which was extremely labour intensive — so my Dad tells me — because all the upholstering for the back of the chair had to be hand-stitched to the wire frame. (No wood to staple upholstery to.)

In short, Uncle Bill lived large in the way that he found stimulating and meaningful. Which sets a good example for the rest of us.

Anyway, that’s the news, up-to-the-minute from Starbucks in Metropolitan Peterborough.

Hey! This is an authentic blog post, chatty and stream-of-consciousness like. What do you know about that?!

p.s. Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays to all my regulars!

White Christmas everywhere in Canada

A white Christmas in Canada? What are the odds of that?!

The odds are lower than you might suppose! In fact, this will be the first one since 1971. But the standard we’re describing is a white Christmas in every region of Canada. From today’s Globe and Mail:

Winter walloped Vancouver on the official start of the snowy season Sunday — and it was the same story across the country as Canada approaches its first coast-to-coast white Christmas in almost four decades.

Snow piled up in Vancouver, slowing down traffic and pedestrians.

Snow in Vancouver, November 2006. Photo by Flickr user Ms. Melch; all rights reserved.

Vancouver is certain to have its first white Christmas since 1998, when there was 20 centimetres on the ground. The temperature is predicted at or below zero through the week.

A white Christmas in Vancouver happens about once a decade and John McIntyre, an Environment Canada meteorologist in the city, said British Columbia’s Lower Mainland could have a “perfect Christmas,” which the government weather agency defines as snow on the ground and snow falling.

It also looks like Canada will have its first coast-to-coast white Christmas since 1971. Vancouver is generally without snow and on the years it has it, other areas such as Southern Ontario aren’t under the cold blanket.

“It’s a white Christmas, everywhere,” said André Cantin, an Environment Canada meteorologist in Quebec City.

Indie’s tennis ball relocation service

Indie with tennis ball

As anyone can see by looking at this photograph, Indie* just loves tennis balls.

Except it’s a lie. Indie is not a retriever. She finds tennis balls thoroughly engrossing for perhaps 20 seconds. Then she casts them aside and goes looking for squirrels, or sniffing at interesting smells.

Indie is a hunter and a sniffer. But tennis balls are among the things she sniffs out.

The local park, where dogs are allowed to run off the leash, also has two tennis courts. Between tennis players who’ve lost their balls (hmmmm… there must be a better way to say that) and dogs who’ve lost their balls (nope — I can’t think of any) — well, let’s just say there are a lot of stray balls lying around.

Tennis balls, I mean.

So finding a tennis ball in the dog park isn’t such a remarkable trick. But one day, as we were walking through the neighbourhood, Indie started sniffing at someone’s lawn. She appeared to be tracking something — a small animal, presumably — with her nose scanning back and forth as she walked forward, tugging at the leash. Right over to a hosta plant —


— whence she pulled out a tennis ball. You already guessed as much, but it came as quite a surprise to me.

This morning, Indie pulled off an equally impressive trick:  she ducked her snout down into a snow bank and pulled out a buried tennis ball. Like Little Jack Horner doing that trick of his with the Christmas pie and the plum.

Smelling a tennis ball through a layer of snow is a pretty neat trick, I think.

Once Indie finds a tennis ball, she carries it proudly for the next twenty seconds or so. Just long enough to show it off a little. Maybe even as far as the next block where — ptooey! — she will spit it onto some stranger’s lawn.

“Indie’s tennis ball relocation service”, I call it. Kind of like a random act of kindness:  wake up one morning, step out onto the porch to collect your newspaper, and spy the tennis ball in your yard.

“But I don’t own a tennis ball,” you think to yourself.

You do now! Merry Christmas, ho-ho-ho!

It’s too bad there’s no money in tennis ball relocation. If only there were, I’d have a very valuable dog on my hands.


*I first introduced Indie a couple of months ago, with a different name:  Aero. That’s the name the Humane Society had given her.

“Indie” is my little joke:  it’s short for “indefatigable”, because it has proven impossible to tire this dog out.

Alternatively, the name evokes independent “indie” music; or the Indianapolis “Indy” 500 race; or Indiana “Indie” Jones. Take your pick:  I like pet names that have multiple referents.

Stephen Harper’s strategic incoherence

Prime Minister Stephen Harper strikes fear into the hearts of his political opponents. He has gone about the business of gradually redefining the landscape of Canadian politics in his favour. The Conservatives have made incremental gains, from one election to the next. Harper is therefore regarded as a master political strategist.

The fear is legitimate. Prime Minister Harper is skilled at the public relations aspect of the job, and he is highly aggressive. He has been extremely effective at keeping his political opponents on the defensive.

But the Prime Minister’s reputation as a master strategist is bogus. It is becoming increasingly obvious that his political gambits are often incoherent.

A couple of weeks ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released his fall fiscal update. That’s a standard practice in Canadian politics:  the Government delivers an economic update in the fall, followed by a full budget in February.

In this case, an announcement which ought to have been business as usual instead precipitated an extraordinary crisis.

The fiscal update was the latest example of Stephen Harper’s aggressive approach to politics. And it was so odious to the opposition parties that they banded together and threatened to replace the Conservative government with a Liberal/NDP coalition.

Here’s an “inside” account of those remarkable events. It comes from an informative article in Macleans, Inside A Crisis That Shook The Nation:

Nobody guessed … that Flaherty was about to announce a proposal to yank away the $1.95 per vote subsidy the federal parties are paid every year, a taxpayer underwriting of party costs that amounts to less than $30 million.

That subsidy was introduced in 2004, part of [Liberal Prime Minister] Jean Chrétien’s landmark reform of political financing. …

For the 12 months that ended last Sept. 30, the Conservatives collected about $10.5 million, the Liberals $8.75 million, the NDP $5 million, and the Bloc [Québécois] $3 million.

But the importance of that public money varies according to the parties’ capacity to raise their own funds—and therein lay the problem for Harper’s opponents. The Tories’ mighty fundraising machine pulled in $19.7 million in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the Liberals a paltry $5.7 million. Considering they have a much smaller voter base than the Liberals, the NDP did better, also raising $5.7 million. The Bloc’s backers contributed $861,000. So the Tories are the least reliant of any party on the taxpayer support. …

But why would the government imagine that the opposition parties, who together control a solid majority of House seats, would go along with a brazen bid to cripple their operations?

A Conservative official told Maclean’s that a key assumption was that the NDP would side with the Tories, seeing a chance to bankrupt their shared historic adversary—the Grits [i.e., the Liberal Party]. Although NDP fundraising is not as robust as the Tories’, it’s markedly healthier than the Liberals’. “We thought,” said the Tory insider, “the NDP would see that the Liberals would be hurt more than them.”

Now that’s a brilliant manoeuvre! The NDP would vote with the government, even though the loss of public financing would cause them some pain. The Liberal Party, which has been in freefall for the past three election cycles (2004, 2006, 2008) would be fatally wounded — to the mutual benefit of the Conservatives and the NDP.

You can see why Stephen Harper is regarded as a strategic genius.

Except there is that other matter to bear in mind. I speak of Stephen Harper’s Achilles heel — his strategic incoherence. In addition to the elimination of public financing for political parties, the fiscal update included “two more incendiary proposals”:

Flaherty vowed to temporarily take away the right of public sector unions to strike, and remove the right of women claiming they were underpaid compared with men to take their pay-equity complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The NDP has traditionally relied on a disproportionate share of support from those two consituencies — women and union members. Hence, “a senior NDP official said those provisions left no chance the party could vote for the update.”

Poof! That’s the sound of Stephen Harper’s latest Machiavellian manoeuvre going up in smoke.

The Conservatives were relying on NDP support for their fiscal update. But the Prime Minister had poisoned the well he intended to drink from.

That’s what you call strategic incoherence.

Eclectic Electric Arguments

Paul McCartney has released a new disc, “Electric Arguments”.

Electric Arguments

Actually, the artist isn’t Paul McCartney; it’s The Fireman. That would be Paul McCartney with Youth, who is the bassist for the Killing Joke.

This is the third disc released by The Fireman. Odds are, you haven’t heard of the earlier releases.

Youth brings electronic experimentation to the project. The first two releases were instrumental electronica — not the Paul McCartney that you’re familiar with. But then, McCartney has explored an avant garde side as long ago as the Beatles era. Three or four of the tracks from The Fireman “Rushes” — get it?; “the fireman rushes in” — are still in circulation on my iPod.

If you’re wondering what I mean by “electronica”, here’s an excerpt from the new disc.

Electric Arguments is a departure from the earlier Fireman discs. Although a few of the tracks fit into the “electronica” category, this is the first Fireman disc with vocals.

I’ve titled this post, “Eclectic Electric Arguments” because each track explores a different genre. The exact categorization of each track doesn’t really matter, but the point is, The Fireman cover an eclectic range of music:

  • Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight and Highway:
    The two relatively hard rock tracks on the disc. Nothing Too Much (track #1) stands apart from everything else on the disc:  an angry, dirty tune. (There’s an excerpt below, after the jump.)
  • Two Magpies:
    A folk-y, pretty little (2:12) acoustic guitar and vocal ditty.
  • Sing the Changes, Sun Is Shining, and Don’t Stop Running:
    I suppose these tracks would be categorized as soft rock songs. None of them will go down as a “classic”, but they all have an infectious, driving energy.
  • Travelling Light:
    A ballad with a somewhat mystical aura.

    I ride on the white wind
    High over the sand …

    I glide on the green leaf
    Not asking for more.

    Travelling Light is an early favourite from the disc, with a beautiful, captivating melody.

  • Light From Your Lighthouse:
    My favourite track on the disc. It’s a country Gospel song (particularly the chorus), akin to “I’ll Fly Away” or “Can the Circle Be Unbroken”. McCartney’s voice is virtually unrecognizable during the verses:  he sings in a gruff old guy persona (though the backing harmony is the familiar McCartney). Here’s an excerpt; you’ll hear the gruff old guy voice only for the first few seconds:


  • Lifelong Passion:
    Another semi-mystical song, this time with an Indian quaver to it (shades of George Harrison). I can’t say this track is a favourite of mine, but it sustains an interesting mood.
  • Lovers In A Dream:
    Electronic dance music.
  • Universal Here, Everlasting Now:
    Starts out as electronica, then segues into a soft rock tune. (The electronica segment is the unidentified excerpt embedded near the top of this post.) And there’s another slice of electronica in the form of a “hidden” track, two minutes after the end of Don’t Stop Running.

McCartney is best known for his “silly love songs,” of course. But he is capable enough, both as a musician and as a composer, to pull off pretty much anything he puts his mind to.

McCartney has found an artistic second wind in the last few years. His two most recent discs were both very strong. If you haven’t downloaded “Jenny Wren” (from Chaos and Creation in the Backyard) or “Mr. Bellamy” (from Memory Almost Full), you’re missing two true classics from the McCartney catalogue.

I mean it:  those two tracks stand up well even by comparison to McCartney’s greatest compositions.

Electric Arguments is a different sort of effort (as its attribution to The Fireman suggests). It isn’t a concept album; there’s no attempt to sustain a consistent theme or tone. Each track is a discrete, individual effort.

I mean that literally. Each of the thirteen tracks was written and recorded in a single day, spread out over the course of a year.

It follows that the disc isn’t as polished as McCartney’s previous two. I doubt that any track will be described as “one for the ages”. Moreover, the disc slumps with four consecutive, relatively weak tracks, beginning with Dance ‘Til We’re High (track #8 of 13). Of course, your mileage may vary.

It’s also clear that McCartney didn’t put much effort into the lyrics, but that would hardly be a first for him.

Overall, this is still a strong, enjoyable effort. Indeed, the disc is getting very favourable reviews. For example, the critics at have selected Electric Arguments as one of their favorite rock albums of 2008.

Whether you’re keen on this disc will depend on what sort of music you like to listen to. If you like to stay in a narrow comfort zone, give it a miss. But if you like to shake things up a bit, and introduce some variety to your listening experience — this disc is well worth the money.

You can download the whole disc for $8.99. For that price, you get both mp3 files and a lossless format that you can burn to disc, or compress for your iPod.

After the jump, I’ll try to relate the disc to recent events in McCartney’s personal life.

The FiremanYouth and Paul McCartney get experimental together


Elder abuse … and euthanasia

Just as babies are vulnerable to neglect or abuse, so are the elderly — people at the other end of the life cycle.

The Globe and Mail is reporting a terrible case of elder abuse today. The victim, Tony Butler, is a 69 year old man who is unable to communicate — the after effects of a stroke he suffered in 2004.

Mr. Butler is 6’1″ tall. When he was rescued from his apartment, he weighed only 68 pounds. (His weight has nearly doubled since then.)

Mr. Butler’s adult daughter, who eventually rescued him, says his catheter appeared never to have been changed.

Mr. Butler was neglected by his “much-younger ex-girlfriend” who has been sentenced to eighteen months in jail for failing to provide the necessities of life.

Mr. Butler was also abused by his former girlfriend’s new, heroin-addicted boyfriend. He was found tied to a bed with a dog leash, his body covered in bruises, both new and old, wearing makeup from head to toe. He had three broken fingers and a badly swollen arm.

Not to mince words, this couple starved and tortured a 69-year-old man who was debilitated due to a stroke.

From time to time I hear about something like this, and it never ceases to enrage me. How could anyone do such a thing?, I wonder.

But of course babies, children, mentally handicapped folks, and other vulnerable individuals are not infrequently abused. It’s unspeakably depraved; it’s also somewhat commonplace.

This is a bit of a tangent, but the existence of elder abuse makes me reluctant to jump on board the euthanasia bandwagon.

I understand why someone who is suffering from a degenerative illness might be impatient for life to end. But I also bear in mind that such individuals are highly vulnerable.

Whether their illness is tolerable or intolerable depends, to a significant extent, on the support they receive from loved ones. But sometimes loved ones are cruel. Other times, they have a vested interest in seeing the elderly person die.

Our first duty as a society is not to make euthanasia available to those who desire it. (So far, I’m glad to report that Canadian courts have turned a big thumbs down on assisted suicide.)

Our first duty is to provide adequate care:  to relieve pain and provide companionship; to make the end stage of a person’s life as comfortable and pleasant as possible under the circumstances.

In that situation, a person might still prefer to die. That scenario presents a very difficult moral dilemma, to my mind.

But whatever decision we ultimately make, we mustn’t be naive about human nature. Consider how easy it would be for a loved one to say,

Gee, Gran, you look really uncomfortable today. It must be a terrible ordeal to go to sleep in pain, knowing you’ll still be in pain tomorrow, from the moment you open your eyes in the morning. It must be hard to cope, when there’s nothing in your future to look forward to. But we don’t consider you to be a burden, Gran — honest we don’t.

Next thing you know, dear old Gran is asking for a merciful death:  and the loved one is cheerily collecting an inheritance.

Unthinkable? Not when you consider what happened to Tony Butler.

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