Of Teachers We Knew

An old friend of mine recently uploaded this video to YouTube. It’s my Grade 7 teacher at the age of 16, lip-syncing to Etta James’s “Stop the Wedding” on our local TV station’s Saturday afternoon hit music show.

She had a big impact on the lives of those of us she taught. My friend and I started a school paper at her urging. He went on to become the founder of a literary journal and magazine editor whereas I went on to other things. But she was the one who told us to find a passion and run with it.

She often went off the prescribed coursework and often told us of the real history of Canada and the US in that she made sure we were aware of slavery. She had a YA novelist come in to read from her book about the Underground Railroad. Every day began with 15 minutes of self-directed reading. She saw I was reading, at 12, George Orwell’s 1984. She encouraged me to keep reading it, even if I honestly didn’t get all of it.

I have increasingly vague memories of a lot of the teachers from those days but the memories of her have always remained sharp.

She passed away in 2011.

It’s Everyone’s Problem

It’s been an awful week in Quebec. On Sunday, a man opened fire in a Ste-Foy mosque on attendants as they were praying, killing six men. Alexandre Bissonnette has been charged with six counts of first degree murder and faces possible terrorism charges. The victims were Azzedine Soufiane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Ibrahima Barry, and Abdelkrim Hassane.

In the flood of think pieces that come out after an event like this, there was some attempt to frame this as something unique to Quebec, that somehow this province is more prone to violent outbursts than others. This bizarre piece from the Washington Post by J.J. McCullough cherry picks some events to suggest Quebec is somehow more prone to gun massacres than other provinces. Others have suggested there is more bigotry toward Muslims from white, francophone Quebeckers than other Canadians.

Certainly, the accused is reported to have extreme views on Muslims and is a fan of Donald Trump and Marine le Pen and their views on Islam are well documented. And, indeed over the past number of years in Quebec politics, there have been a number of proposals put forward by politicians that views as targeting the Muslim community. The views heard on Quebec’s talk radio stations, radio poubelle, as it’s known, are often extreme and derogatory toward Muslims.

But I would say it’s a mistake to lead people to believe Quebec is somehow more than Islamophobic than anywhere else in the world. I think Islamophobia is generally a Western problem. In Canada, the far-right news website Rebel Media spent the week trying to prove the attack was done by Muslims. (I won’t link to that site but instead you can read the Beaverton’s take on it here). In Europe, far-right, anti-immigration parties are making gains partially based on a fear of Muslims. So this is by no means unique to Quebec.

I don’t know if this event will make people behave a little more decently to each other and stop fearing the “otherness” of them but it was gratifying to see so many people coming out to vigils and the funerals of the victims. If nothing else, people should know that those who hold such extreme views represent a only fringe minority of the population.

For my part, I donated to a fund for the victims’ families here.

The New Not Normal

 

I’m spending this month in a series of group counselling sessions for management people past forty who are “in career transition,” as the euphemism goes. In general, it’s been pretty helpful. I’m terrible at networking and cold calling so it’s helping me with that. They say 80% of jobs out there are not advertised so networking is how you get them.

But an interesting thing happened yesterday. We’re in the suburbs of Montreal and as a group, I’d say about 30% of us are immigrants. If I was in the city’s core, I imagine that percentage would be higher.

One participant made a comment, beginning with “When I came to this country…” and when he finished the moderator said (I’m paraphrasing because it was in French, mostly):

“OK, here’s a thing. On Friday, in the United States, they are going to inaugurate an IDIOT. Because of this, on both sides of the border, and I’ve lived in Boston and Montreal, there are bigots who think it’s now ok to discriminate against immigrants. You may want to focus on your experience and education and not your background. When you’re talking about your background to an employer, just say I have a PhD. Or, I worked for Coca-Cola. You don’t have to say my PhD is from Spain or I worked for Coke in Colombia. That can come later when they find out how really great you are.”

Now, this moderator was an older guy so maybe he was erring on the side of abundant caution but it surprised me that he suggested that. Last year, Canada welcomed 25,000 refugees and only the most conservative of our politicians suggest heavy restrictions on immigration. But perhaps he has good reasons for suggesting it. Canada is not immune to this kind of dog-whistle, anti-immigration rhetoric and some of our own politicians are taking a page out of Trump’s book.

It’s a frightening and sad thing to imagine something as banal as employment counselling can be poisoned by this new political atmosphere.

On the Language of Business

As a Quebec anglophone, I am what is known as bilingual*. I can read, write (with assistance), and understand what is being said in person or on TV or radio.

The * comes in when it comes to speaking. I am incredibly shy about speaking in French knowing that the French in my head sounds a lot better than what comes out of my mouth. So, afraid that I’ll make mistakes, I speak quickly and nervously and because I speak quickly and nervously, I make mistakes. If I slow down and think about what I need to say, I do better.

This makes job hunting in Montreal a bit of a challenge. Montreal has plenty of companies that operate officially in English. I worked 19 years for a company that did its business in English. But others are French only or bilingual. And that’s natural. This is, after all, Quebec. You know you can do the job you’re applying for but if you can’t communicate through the selection process, and knowing you’re up against people who speak four or five languages effortlessly, you’re going to be a disadvantage in a major way.

I have a phone interview in French on Wednesday. I can do things to prepare, like write down some anticipated responses in French (phone interviews are great that way – they’re like an open book test) but my spoken French really needs to improve. There are things I can do to help with that: MeetUp groups that specialize in French conversation, etc. But until I get it up to a better standard, I’m always going to find myself at a disadvantage.

It’s the reality of employment. You always need to upgrade your skills and learn new ones if you want to stay relevant.

Clearly, I have some room for improvement.

But at least I’m not Wayne Gretzky.

Can Blogging Come Back?

The title does not, by any means, suggest everyone stopped blogging suddenly but on a personal level, and for many bloggers I used to follow, the habit started dying off about five years ago, perhaps longer.

Social media had a lot to do with it. Facebook allowed you to sit in a space with most of your friends, family, and co-workers and share things that you might have shared on a blog but were really too short to elaborate on. Twitter allowed you to share quick thoughts or links to things you thought were important or just amusing without having to write an entire blog post about it.

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But for me, I think it was when Google shut down their Reader, one of their best products. Opening up Reader first thing in the morning was a great way to get my fix of writing, find a conversation to be part of, and find content for my own blog, all in one place. When it died, part of my own blogging habit died with it. I tried the alternatives like feedly but it just isn’t the same. WordPress has its own Reader which is great for, well, WordPress blogs but, again, does not offer the same experience. Around that time there were other platforms like feedburner in addition to an explosion of blogging. When you have that kind of combination, it inspires your own writing.

Perhaps a lot of people also stopped blogging so much for the same reasons I did: life changes. You get married, you have kids, you buy a house, you’re focused on your job (or getting one, in my case) and the priority to write about that thing that interests you gets reduced.

But with Twitter having turned into a Cuisinart blender of Pepe frogs, angry eggs, and proud Neo-Nazis chasing away everyone who dares to suggest we act decently toward each other, and Facebook that place where I behave myself like my mother is watching (because she is), surely there is room for thoughtful, engaging writing on the web. The forums are still there, free for anyone to use. Maybe more of us will use them and we can have a slightly better internet.

The Mystery of the Dead Fish

Nova Scotia is closing off 2016 with a grim mystery: Why are so many different species of fish washing ashore dead?

Eric Hewey, a Halifax resident, home for the holidays in Digby, noticed a massive number of herring, crabs, lobster, and starfish had washed up on the shore dead. Ted Leighton, a local retired veterinary pathologist thinks, because the deaths cut across species, the cause was not likely viral which would limit it to one species.

Until scientific tests can be carried out, the cause will not be known but that hasn’t stopped Facebook commenters from weighing. As far they’re concerned, this is the work of anything from the aquaculture farms nearby to an after effect of a recent storm to, yes, Biblical End Times. I think the first possibilities are probably the most worthy of investigation.

2016, it seems, is determined not to leave even the sleepiest corners of the world untouched.

By Christmas?

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. When I was downsized in March, I got a number of phone calls from recruiters fairly quickly and I assumed I’d be working again by summer. Then I thought, when that didn’t happen, I’d be working by fall. Then everyone assured me I’d be working by Christmas.

But right now, I can’t give it away. I’m still living off a severance package and all is well in that department but eventually, I’m going to need something. I got an email from a company specializing in debt restructuring asking if I was interested in a position with them. Calling people to arrange debt repayments sounds positively depressing but, well, I’m going to have to do something, aren’t I?

I’m reminded of the song by Payola$, “Christmas is Coming” written during an economic depression in the early 80s and it even mentions going on Unemployment Insurance, as it was known back then.

Been down to the UI
and nothing but queues
Been down on my welfare
with holes in my shoes
the kitchen’s still leaking
with floods on the floor
the landlord will fix it
he only wants more
Christmas is coming it’s been a long year

I suppose as the new fiscal year begins, companies may have more positions available.

On the other hand, there is a child-man in the White House with his finger on the button and we’re all going to die so it won’t matter! Wheeee! I’m trying not to be fatalistic. I really am.

Anyway, we’re spending tomorrow night in Ottawa to visit some friends and family and see the lights on Parliament Hill. Our invitation to visit Justin and Sophie at Harrington Lake must have been lost in the mail so we’ll be at a Travelodge. And we’re eating at a Chinese restaurant. Because somehow, every holiday season, Chinese food is consumed somewhere along the line.

I hope you and your loved ones have a nice Christmas, Hanukkah, or just a relaxing holiday break.

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