More important than efficiency; more important than money.

Someone tweeted a link to a Youtube video the other day that really touched a nerve. The video shows a rant by a comedian/activist named Lee Camp. His delivery is engaging and funny, but behind it is a serious message about what society is becoming. In a previous post, I touched on Camp’s idea: the idea that our workplaces are always being monitored for “efficiency”. Camp’s rant proposes that this model works to the detriment of common decency, as we see in airlines’ policies that cash in on people’s desire for conveniences – inefficient conveniences like pre-boarding for the elderly, allowing families to sit together, and of course, olives on salads.

Camp’s rant got me to thinking. How far have we bought in to the corporate model of efficiency that commodifies things that should be standard fare? We used to have strong support for unions, understanding that what they do is noble – that a group of people putting aside some of their money in order to create a cooperative fund to militate against employers’ desire to take advantage of the workers, is a good thing. In this regard, there has been a huge change of attitude by people, as reflected in their choice of government. Unions are now seen as inefficient. In providing access to human rights – in insisting that an employer show just cause for firing an employee, in insisting that seniority be a consideration in job mobility, unions have become the enemy of profitable venture.

I am a teacher. Our negotiating power has been denied us by legislation. The same can be said about health care workers, Air Canada employees and most recently CP employees. In the U.S., state laws are being passed that render unionism illegal. Companies and governments are trying to cut down expenditures at the expense of benefits to their employees. When you really step back and think about this, it’s absurd. Employees are people, and people are nations, but nations are mandating lower standards of living for their people. In none of the above mentioned disputes are the workers in job action looking to get rich. But someone is.

We seem to have come to accept this efficiency model as common sense. (Of course a company will relocate to another country if it can find cheaper labour there. What do the workers expect? What they want is “unsustainable.”) But what’s perhaps more troubling is the way the model seeps into other things. When I  teach school, I sometimes deviate from the lesson plan. I’m just waiting for the day that the “teachable moment” doesn’t fit in with the model of efficiency that says we must fill each moment with content, and each classroom with as many students as it can possibly hold. We’re halfway there. I still have some autonomy, but for how long? How long before the efficiency masters start legislating content and pacing in all classrooms? There are already precedents for this in some U.S. school districts.

I remember a poetry class I took in my second undergrad year. It was taught by the legendary Warren Tallman. At the time, he was a hopeless alcoholic, and his classes were a bit off the cuff. I’m quite sure he didn’t prepare lessons, but chose rather to just talk about something that interested him about poetry. What saved his hide was that he could recite hundreds of poems from memory, and he had a detailed recollection of the biographies of all of the greats. In one lesson he challenged us to name a classic poet and from memory he would recite an entire poem from that poet. I remember being in awe of that. One day Warren walked into the room late. Had I known his credentials as one of the foremost poetry critics of his time, I might have shown him a little more respect, but instead, I playfully cajoled him: “Hmm, decided to join us?”.

He was unruffled, but quite serious and sober (which was not always a guarantee). He started a mild rant. “What is wrong with us?” he asked, “that we are in such a hurry to get to somewhere, that we can’t help a lost elderly woman find a place she’s looking for?” (I’m paraphrasing). He proceeded to tell us how he was on his way to class when he encountered a person needing help and decided to walk her to where she was trying to go. He knew we’d be okay to wait five or ten minutes. His reward, he told us, was that he got to meet a fascinating, beautiful person. What ensued was a passionate discussion. A class in which few of the students knew anything about anyone else, became an open discussion which digressed into a beautiful confessional for personal experiences, and passionate world views. All we needed was permission. And lest harumphing commerce majors poo-poo this experience as fun-cum-wasted-resources, let me just say that once our passion was aroused in this forum, we all became more passionate students of English. The subject became personal for us. Efficiency be damned! We were now true students of Warren Tallman, the literary genius.

You may be thinking, “Yeah, yeah, but that’s an arts course.” But I’ve attended many other lessons that began with inefficient humanism, to wit, a grade 9 math lesson. For the life of me I can’t remember the content of any math lesson given by my genteel teacher, Mr. Sandhu, except one. It was a geometry lesson and we were to learn about the circle. Mr. Sandhu spoke poetically about the beauty of the circle – how nature tends toward a circle: a stone in a stream, a drop of water, the fetus in-utero. I was gobsmacked, even in Grade 9. This wasn’t in the text book! Efficiency be damned. He suggested to me a whole new way to appreciate mathematics. Mathematics is a way we can relate to each other. It’s a way to translate the laws of nature into predictable theory. Who knew that it was something more than a means to count money and hedge bets?

We seem to have forgotten about what’s important. Music classes are terribly inefficient. There are very few jobs in which your skills as a saxophonist will come in handy. But what would our world be without music, without art, without the elderly, without families? Why this constant pressure to streamline, to reduce service? Why all this focus on “the bottom line?” Who benefits? Not me. Not most people.

There is a solution. It lies in deciding what we think is important in our society, and pressuring our politicians to protect it. We need to wake up, and take part in our democracy. We need set minimum standards of human decency, and distribute wealth fairly so that these standards can be met. And if another power pressures us to abandon our standards for their sake, we need to protect ourselves from them with policies that insulate us from their pressure. In the mean time, we can follow Lee Camp’s suggestion to refuse to accept the lowered standards of decency. We can refuse to board the plane until the elderly are allowed to go first.


The Riverview Grounds: Green Heritage Space in a Drive Thru

The BC government has begun an eleventh hour discussion with citizens about what fate should befall the huge Riverview grounds in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Quite likely the government has already made up its mind to sell the land to developers. The consultation process seems like window-dressing. It has been poorly advertised, and rushed. It seems to be contrived in such a way that when the government announces its sell-off  of the land to private developers, it can employ the phrase “after careful consultation with the public…”. Besides the built-in inefficacy of the process, another reason to believe that the process is disingenuous is that up to now, the current Liberals’ record on public assets has been one of sell-offs to private interests. It’s simply too much to believe that the appointed premier, Christy Clark will change course from her predecessor’s perfect track record of privatization, despite her “family first” election mantra. And a final piece of evidence is the neglect of the buildings themselves on the site, many of them long empty.

Riverview is a strange pastoral oasis in tucked into the hillside above Lougheed Highway.

I took a walk through the old Riverview grounds tonight. They are unique in a city like Coquitlam – a city that grew up as a bedroom community for Vancouver and New Westminster, a city that was conceptualized around automobile commuting. Coquitlam is a sprawling series of residential neighbourhoods on two hills, with commercial pockets added as what seem to be an afterthought. As Greater Vancouver sprawled further and further east along the Fraser River, Coquitlam became a drive-thru, with three major highways and a major rail corridor thundering through its heart. It is an extremely diverse city that is trying to define itself. It boasts much green space with a rivers and creeks cutting swaths through it, but it has little developed parkland, and almost no heritage land, Riverview, being the exception.

Despite the neglect suffered by the many buildings in Riverview, one can see signs that this was once a place where many people lived and worked. The grounds were well landscaped, and the foliage diverse. There remain on the site magnificent trees and lush green foliage. Nestled amongst the buildings and cut into the hillside is a lovely sports field. I don’t own an expensive camera, and I’m certainly not a photographer, but what follows is a short photo essay of my walk through part of the grounds on a very rainy evening. What I hope for Riverview is that it will be endowed to Coquitlam as a designated parkland and heritage site; developed, renovated and preserved.

This dirt road begged me to explore.
A path through a thicket of trees beckoned.
What’s this? A bench along the little trail – a sign that the place was designed for people.
An open field at the end of the trail. Still well groomed.

Magnificent trees are everywhere. As I get older, I find it harder and harder to contemplate cutting down such wonders.
Even in the rain, this tree seemed to fluoresce, as if spotlights were trained on it.
Nothing made by human hands can touch the perfection of a simple leaf.

A monkey puzzle tree, 60 ft high if it’s an inch.

Riverview’s buildings are eclectic in design, a collection of drab institutional cinderblock and wood-framed Tudor styled buildings.
Unit 8 is an awful building.

In contrast to the Edenic setting, the abandoned Unit 8 is a stark reminder of a time when the mentally ill were institutionalized in prison-like buildings. The structure of this building conjured images of misery and brutality. I can only imagine the terror of a patient being delivered here. This too should be preserved.

Risk, reward, and an old adding machine

When I was a kid in the late 70s I worked in Grandpa’s paint store. Grandpa started his career at Cominco in Trail, where he got hired because somehow the company was under the misapprehension (likely through a well pitched, albeit fraudulent resumé) that Grandpa, a war vet from the prairies, was a hockey player good enough to vie for the local hockey team, the legendary Trail Smoke Eaters. He never made the team, but he was retained on “The Hill” as a  full time painter in the huge lead/zinc smelting plant. The money was decent, and Grandpa was a skilled worker, but he didn’t get along with his boss, and he complained constantly to his wife, Joyce, about the job. Grandma Joyce finally got fed up with the bitterness and told him that if he hated things so much he should just quit.

I’m impressed at the nerve Grandma had. Both she and Grandpa had just survived the depression and World War II, and they had a young boy – Roger, my dad. For people, especially prairie people, who had survived the depression, a job must have been precious. It must have been terrifying for Grandma to encourage Grandpa to reject a good paying, secure job. But she did, and Grandpa quit. It was a good decision. Trail, and other southern BC Interior towns were growing at the time. Houses and businesses were being built, and things needed to be painted. Grandpa ended up being quite entrepreneurial, and he did quite well for himself, eventually becoming the largest paint contractor in Western Canada.

As a side interest, Grandpa ran a little paint store. He won lucrative contracts as the towns main supplier of paint to the many corporations and individuals. The profits rolled in. By the time I worked in the store, things had changed. Grandpa had had a major heart attack, and he had not recovered well from the bypass surgery. Even then it was rare for Grandpa’s particular surgery to fail, but he was left weak and frail, and could not carry on with the contracting business. He sold most of his equipment and focussed on running the store and spending as much time as he could at his cabin at Christina Lake. I worked in the store.

I have fond memories of the Store. Grandpa believed in service, and he formed good relationships with his customers as well as the sales reps from CIL, his main supplier. He was frugal, not wasting money on things that didn’t matter. He always eschewed the electric cash register, being satisfied with ink-and-paper record keeping and a hand-cranked adding machine – a very impressive piece of mechanical technology itself, but I digress. People and companies had accounts at the store, and once a month, we would stuff envelopes and mail out bills to customers. Some people mailed back cheques to pay their tabs, but most people just popped in and dropped off their payment.

I miss those days. We got to know the customers. We knew about people’s successes and about those who had fallen on hard times. Although Grandpa would be frustrated at times when people defaulted on payments. he didn’t harass people who defaulted, but preferred to trust their good will, and just send reminders when payments were more than a week or so late. There were some losses, of course, but it seems to me now that there weren’t many, and certainly, Grandpa’s was a kinder gentler way of doing business. I wonder what ever happened to that old adding machine, a relic even when I used it all those years ago.