Sunday, July 26, 2009

The demise of comedy


I have noticed an increasingly disturbing trend in comedy, or so called comedy, which is to humiliate and victimize people. Borat and Bruno are excellent examples of this genre. While it could be argued that comics always had innocent people as foils for their jests, the trend to openly ridicule and humiliate, is, I think, recent.

Tricking bystanders was the standard ploy of television shows like "Candid Camera" and more recently, the French "Jusque pour rire". In each of these shows, an unsuspecting citizen is tricked by some fairly elaborate hoaxes. But unlike Borat or Bruno who thrive on ridicule and mockery and shock, at the end of each skit, the citizen is shown the camera and are let in on the joke.

I have heard of an episode with Ellen Degeneres where blindfolded people ate marshmallows with the winner the one who had consumed the most. They could not use their hands. What is the point of such abject humiliation? It surely degrades all of us.

Jesters of the court were known for their wit for their ability to sum up society and poke fun at it. Such wit or comedy requires intelligence and a keen awareness of the situation. Gilbert and Sullivan for example mocked the social and political situation of their day through music. Such comedy engages the audience by respecting their intelligence.

Any act that purports itself to be funny that humiliates, ridicules, or degrades another person is simply not comedy, it is bullying.

Friday, July 24, 2009

In praise of maps


Today on the radio there was a broadcast about the GPS systems that are everywhere in our lives. The guests were praising the "interface between humanity and technology" and saying how it is always right.

A GPS is only as good as its maps that have been downloaded. How complete are they? What do they reference? One guest said the GPS was great as it took him to points of interest. What a sterile thought...to be guided to what someone else, the computer programmer considers a point of interest. How packaged can your lives get? GPS for everyday use treats us like idiots

Moreover, no one mentioned maps. I love maps. They allow you to plan a route and to explore little known roads and towns. A map treats you, the user with respect. You have to unfold it, take it out, measure distances and plan. Planning a trip is almost as fun as actually taking it. You have to research. Using a map allows you a measure of creativity and flexibility. A map, unlike GPS does not speak to you saying "Turn right" or "Stop here". A map does not dictate, like the sea charts of the early explorers, it allows you to explore and to chart out unknown territories or towns. Maps dont need batteries!

Maps are also portable, you can stick them in your glove compartment. I have had to update my maps only occasionally and for the larger towns with all of the new subdivisions. Maps moreover. have little roads that the GPS might not have and allow you to explore.

While a GPS system is very useful for mapping...my husband Cyril is using a GPS system to map the location of rare trees within the experimental farm in Ottawa, I think for trips and car usage, it is very overblown.

I have friends who use the GPS to go hiking and trekking. Again, a map and compass was not only more fun, it was more challenging. You had to count footsteps, take readings and I used to imagine myself as Samuel de Champlain with an astrolabe!

I am not a luddite, I own a computer and a digital camera but in this case, for the everyday person who needs directions...a map is by far the superior choice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

End of the puffin

Tonight I sold our canoe, the Puffin. The Puffin, while heavy, was built on the model of the Chestnut canoe, the finest canoe ever made.

The Puffin handled well in high winds, cold wet waves and carried Cyril and I to the great Canadian wilderness. Alas, like Puff the magic dragon, the Puffin was replaced with a faster, lighter canoe and spend the past 10 years in my mothers garage.

Today, the Puffin was sold to a young family with children aged 10 and 7. The new owner, a boat lover admired the way the Puffin, even in its retirement was lovingly cared for with its polished seats and well formed yolk. He noted that his daughter would enjoy the painting of the puffin on the bow of the boat. The Puffin deserved to be in the water again with a family that would enjoy her.

It is a strange thing, I can sell bikes, skates, skis and cars but somehow this little yellow canoe, our first canoe with all of its memories left a lump in my throat as I helped load it onto its new owner's car.

I wish the Puffin well.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Professional fundraising and the death of charity






On August 8th and 9th, I am signed up to ride for a cure for MS. In order to be part of the ride, I was required to fund raise. The charity provided a lot of cute suggestions about how easy it is to raise money and how fast it is. Neither is the truth. The truth about "fun"draising, is it is NOT fun.

Many charities now have foundations with their own staff to raise money and put on events such as these. The days of volunteers who would camp out on a hospital lawn selling cookies or the church bazaars to raise money for a church roof are long gone, we are now in the era of professional fundraising. The professionals know the truth about fundraising!

The first truth about fundraising is to get other people to work for you for free. Not only for free but make them pay to work for you. This is the Tom Sawyer approach.

Tom Sawyer cleverly convinced his friends to pay him to whitewash the fence. At the end of the day, Tom's fence was whitewashed and he had collected prizes from his friends, whom he had convinced were honoured to be doing this work. At the end of August 9th, the MS society will have more money in its coffers and those in the ride will have paid to be part of it.

The difficulties of fundraising are numerous. I have found it particularly challenging when I solicit my friends. This process quickly vets friends. There are friends who will avoid you when you email them, or pretend their email is not working. There are other friends who will promise to sponsor you, but never do. Then there are the friends who think it is a great idea, but will not sponsor you, citing too many charities as the reason.

I have encountered a lot of donor fatigue in my fundraising journey. The professional Tom Sawyers, or fundraisers have almost used up their bag of tricks and people believe that the foundations now exist solely to support themselves and not the original charities. The fundraising attempts are so slick and orchestrated that it is easy to lose sight of what we are doing.

I recently volunteered to assist with the walk to end breast cancer. The professional fundraisers were present, with their speeches and rallying calls...and some of it appeared to be almost like an orchestrated show. I had to remind myself why I was there. Breast cancer has sadly become an industry with pink merchandise, cute slogans and numerous events.

It is the professionalization of fundraising that is one of the main factors in donor fatigue. Fundraising is no longer a few children selling cookies, or middle aged ladies selling jams for church bazaars, fundraising has become big business. It is brash, bold and orchestrated. In the middle ages charity was considered a virtue, it was something that one did voluntarily to assist the less fortunate. Charity is a virtue, it enables us to feel good about helping others. Charity is intensely personal, it is one person's response to a need.

I think that the professional fundraisers with their walks and runs and entertainment and making a business out of raising money are no longer true to the roots of charity. They have depersonalized it and made it part of a show that we buy tickets to watch. It is no longer small or grass roots, it is no longer within the control of the individual. There are even set ticket prices! To walk for breast cancer one had to raise $2400.00. Why? Humbler efforts presumably would not be able to pay the salaries of the professionals who put the event together.

We have packaged the notion of charity and are selling it as a commodity.We no longer assist someone with Alzheimer's, we take part in a run for Alzheimer's, or a walk for memories. We bike for MS, we walk for breast cancer and so on and so forth. We pay to become part of a show.

At a time when people feel alienated and society is increasingly fragmented, we do not need more pastimes or avenues to entertain us. We need to feel connected. We need to recapture the personal in charity. We need to see the face of those to whom we give our alms. We do not need a show.

Professional fundraisers and foundations, while able to attract a considerable amount of funds, will, I believe in the end, poison the very wells from which they drink.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Where or where has Wakefield gone?


Today, our bike club KNBC had a ride from Ottawa to Wakefield Quebec. Wakefield is a beautiful little town on the Gatineau river, well known for its bakeries and tourist steam train.

I rode in on the highway 105. having missed a turn and found the group at the large green pub. There was not a seat to be had. I am not sure where the group had lunch but I found a spot at Chez Eric, after a delicious lunch of salad and quiche and local beer, my riding partner and I cycled to find our group only to see the Wakefield steam train chug slowly down the tracks, people waving as it passed.

As charming as Wakefield is with its steam train, and lovely restaurants, it is no longer a 'real' town. There remains a hospital and a bank and a few churches that give it the vestige of a town but I have the impression they are like a movie set. What used to be an outfitters now sells high end hiking clothing, and the shops are curio shops, or antique stores that sell bric a brac to the well heeled.

Even the general store has become "touristified" and no longer sells useful items like wool socks, or rainboots. While such picturesque little towns charm their visitors, I was saddened by the loss of Wakefield. Wakefield as a town has disappeared. It has been replaced with a disney like fantasy town with quaint restaurants and cafes and the omnipresent steam train. There are no family restaurants and no stores where one can purchase practical items.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Religious Intolerance as a result of limiting God

I have always understood theology to be a journey. Yet for many people the thought that theology can be a journey and therefore responsive to our experiences and change is a very frightening concept. Thus many people, hold on to an understanding of God that was forged in their childhood and responsive to childhood experiences. ( I believe this is the source of much misunderstanding about the role of prayer in Church. Most churchgoers have an idea of God as a wish granter and they only need to ask in earnest and their wishes will be fulfilled) I am always dismayed by people who try to maintain a static understanding of God and salvation throughout their lives no matter what. Their God is unchanging and their understanding blind to their experiences. When something or someone challenges their views, they become irrationally defensive and reactive.

The Bible itself indeed shows how the relationship between God and His people change and how their understanding of God evolves. At times, God is a law giver, who travels in a pillar of fire, at other times God mourns over Jerusalem and weeps for his fallen people. The Bible is the written faith record, or faith journey of a people over many centuries. As such, it is able to explode one's horizon of understanding. The Bible is able to transcend our cultures and our fashions and speak as it were across time, no doubt simply because it is the recording of so many voices and so many experiences of the divine.

How does one experience the divine? I have new age friends who insist that the divine is to be found in nature, and they will point to shamanism or animal spirits. I have other friends who insist that the divine is to be experienced only by means of Christ and they try to crystalize their many faith experiences and doubts into a very small package.

Once you believe that you understand what the divine is, and by extension how to experience the divine, you are by definition limiting the divine, and in essence applying limits on God.

When I hear fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist muslims cry about God and His will...it is not that they are completely wrong, it is simply that their understanding of God is far to limited and rather than try to open their minds, they close them and try to force all of their experiences into their limited understanding of God. In doing so, their theology sounds less divine and far more like an extension of their human pathology, usually to control or coerce others.

To be a Christian is to come to terms with the scandal of particularity, that is to come to terms with God revealing himself in Christ and in Christ alone. What that means however, is far from obvious.

To the fundamentalists, it means that all revelation, all conduits of grace come solely through the person of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament. There is no other way to the Father except through Christ.

The great Catholic theologian Hans Kung, noted that those who practice other faiths insofar as they are in keeping with the fundamental tenants of theism, are in fact, or can be, anonymous Christians.

For those who are non Trinitarian, there is no scandal as Christ is a revelation of the Divine, but there are other ways.

The true scandal as it were is a consequence of our Trinitarian understanding of the role of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is as if we have chosen, over the ages to assign persons to what are functions or aspects of God. The Orthodox have chosen to venerate the Father, the Protestants sing what a friend we have in Jesus, and the Pentecostals, have in Luther's words "swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all"

It is my position that in so doing, we are in fact, worshiping aspects or functions of God, and as a result we are limiting God. Once we limit God or try to transcribe God within the confines of our understanding, we run the risk of being intolerant. Religious intolerance flows from our need to try to control the Divine and to package the Divine such that unlike the Bible that speaks to us because the writers wrote from their experiences, it is independent and in fact transcends all experience. Karl Barth would call this the "Holy Other"

An understanding of a God who is apart from our pain and suffering and who cannot change with us, is surely a recipe for disaster. It is far easier and more comfortable to imagine an unchanging God who thunders out commands of thou shalt nots from mountain tops but it is also wrong and has led to countless conflicts in the world.

I believe it is the role of the churches to educate the laity and to allow them the freedom to experience God not merely an aspect or a shadow of the real thing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

CCCTS Bike Ride of July 8th 2009...soggy fun!


The Cross Country Cycle Touring Society (CCCTS) is a biking group that I have joined this year. While the group is primarily based in BC, the Ottawa Chapter, rides on Tuesday's . The riders are generally retired, ultra fit individuals who share the same passion that I do for bike touring. It is great to see other bikes with fenders and brooks saddles!

Today, July 8th 2009, Martin, Mike, George , Emerson and I embarked from PJ's restaurant in Arnprior under slightly rainy skies. We all imagined the rain would stop as it was summer after all. The rain persisted, stopping only to fog my glasses and pause before raining anew. The scenery on this tour from Arnprior to Portage du Fort and Norway Bay was beautiful. There is very little traffic and on the occasions where the rain had paused its assault on we five, you could actually smell the clover in the fields.

The scenery is pastoral and offers splendid views as you climb.

Norway Bay is home to the Pine Lodge, a beautiful 1930's wooden hotel with a charming dining room. You can imagine this as a movie setting. By the time we arrived, soaked tired and muddy a hot meal was most welcome. Prior to arriving, I had decided that if the rain would not stop I would ask my husband to pick me up. I had reasoned that this was silly. The heavens cooperated however and the rain did stop but had ridden some 60km in mostly wet conditions! Best of all, the Pine Lodge had a drier and we dried our sodden jerseys and in my case rain jacket for the princely sum of 75 cents. Mike and Emerson stayed outside the restaurant without shirts while their jerseys dried.

I don't know why I dried my rain jacket. I don't really understand the purpose of a rain jacket when I am biking. Cycling rain jackets are an enigma. We all carry them, but we have to wonder if they are useful. In my case, I was sure I was far wetter on the inside than the outside. Yet we carry them.

The lunch at the Pine Lodge is well worth waiting for. I had a delicious paninni with salad and pots of hot earl grey tea. I had ridden some 60km in rain and at this point was questioning my sanity. Mike came back and reported that the skies were clearing and the rain had stopped. Encouraged by the news, I ordered another pot of tea and put on my dry CCCTS jersey. The rain had indeed ended.

We rode 20km to the Quyon ferry and some 23 back to Arnprior. On our ride to Arnprior the sun was in front of us, but behind us there were inky black clouds with rumbles of thunder. I had just loaded my bike on the car and put my key in the ignition when the rain started.

Overall, this is a beautiful route in a part of Ontario and Quebec that I did not know very well. The Pine Lodge in Norway Bay is a small treasure, well worth the stop.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bernie Madoff and the Artful dodger


I was puzzled by the recent sentence of 150 years for the convicted swindler par excellence, Bernie Madoff. Puzzled not because he was found guilty but because of the harsh sentence.

The United States is a democratic country that has some of the finest lawmakers in the world..and yet 150 years? It sounds like something out of a Charles Dicken's novel when the Artful Dodger was sentenced to hard labour in Australia for pickpocketing.

Therein lies the similarity. Victorian England was outraged by pickpockets and the poor...or anyone or anything that could separate the middle and upper classes from their wealth. They were deemed unsavoury, irredeemable and sentenced to sentences like 150 years. Their crimes? Theft, fraud, all crimes of the economy. The murders did not receive such harsh treatment.

Our laws are linked to our property and our wealth and are designed to protect not so much us but our property. For example, I can call you names from my property and make your life fairly miserable as your neighbour with relative impunity. However, if I step onto your property...or violate your property rights then I can be charged. Our laws are designed to protect and preserve not individuals but rather their property, and this includes their money and investments.

So Bernie violated the cornerstone of our legal system. He took other people's money. Yet while the Artful Dodger stole from unsuspecting people, Madoff stole from people who in many ways were in on his scheme. He promised huge returns and people, greedy for gain, went along with it. It is akin to someone selling a HD Tv from the back of their car for a great price. Ask no questions.

The reason Madoffs co consipirators (notice how I do not say victims) were so angry was because they had been duped. They were angry at themselves and decided to ensure that Madoff paid the penalty for their stupidity and greed. The more clever the investor, the greater the outrage because they should have known better.

The question that needs to be asked is what is the function of sentencing in this case. In the case of the Artful Dodger, it is clear that he was a victim of Victorian sensibilities who had labelled him as trash. The sentencing was guided by the cries of the middle class who sensed a crime wave and wanted the 'riff raff' out of London. In this case, is it right that the sentencing process be guided by the anger of the victims? Is this not vigilantism? Do we risk losing the impartiality of the legal process when we pay heed to the furies?

I think we do.

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