Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gaining and losing a home

Last week I celebrated American Thanksgiving (look closely - this turkey already has cooking utensils with it. How convenient!). This is a holiday that celebrates appreciation and thanks, and the historical trade in which indigenous people in what is now the U.S. showed settlers how to fish and hunt and in return were given the gift of whisky and syphilis.

But for most Americans, this holiday is about family (be it good friends, neighbours, family members) and home. I was fortunate enough to spend my thanksgiving with extended family near Sacramento.

I was worried a little bit because my expectation of this holiday was that I was going to eat until I could no longer move, and then pass out, pants undone and drooling in front of some American football (if the food didn't make me pass out, the football would). But then I was told that the people hosting tended to be "healthy" people, and I feared we would be given sprouted mung beans and a slice of apple for dessert. Not that these things aren't good, but really, I'm living in the fattest nation in the world, and I feel I should do my part to pack on as much poundage as possible while I'm here.

I needn't have worried. The overloaded table groaned with appetizers, rich bowls of potatoes, yams, gravy, beans, warm baskets of bread, a huge, tender turkey, cheesecake, fruit, pie, and fruit custard cake. It also happened that the host grew his own grapes and was an amateur wine maker. So, only to be polite, I threw back several glasses of very good wine. I recognized then and there that Thanksgiving could become one of my favorite holidays.

However, thanksgiving is also the day before the most horrific day in the United States - Black Friday, a massive consumer holiday where people push, shove, and pepper-spray each other to get the "best deals" so they can carp to their neighbours on how much money they saved. The irony of this being that in fact, they did not save money - they spent it. If you save $100 off a $400 his and hers matching chamber pots, you've still spent $300. On matching chamber pots.
This year especially, this massive consumeristic holiday is particularly disturbing. As a Canadian, I read about people losing their homes and their savings but it was never that tangible and being in San Francisco, I hadn't really thought too much about it. But over the few days I stayed with my relatives, they listed off five or six families who have had to move into apartments or friends' and families' homes because they lost their own in the recession. And the saddest part of this is that this group included a young family, a grandmother, and a couple in which one worked as a successful architect, and some of these folks had been in their homes for decades. It doesn't seem to matter who you are - one wrong turn and, because of a recession caused largely by corporate greed and irresponsible government, anyone could have ended up without a home, not just those who made poor financial decisions around new mortgages.

In an age in which people are not only losing their homes, but it is happening enough that almost everyone knows of several people who are desperately looking for a place to live, I find Black Friday not only troubling in of itself, but an affront to all the people who are now suffering through bankruptcy, homelessness, and shame.

But hey, at least we all have the God-given freedom to purchase as many Star Trek Pizza Cutters as we can get for 75% off at Wal Mart.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tonight I had dinner with a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

And she ate all the fried artichokes we ordered.

Last week, I chatted over tea with John Perkins, author of, among others, the best-selling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. A few weeks ago, I shared a car ride with Vicki Robbin who, way ahead of her time, wrote Your Money or Your Life which questioned the assumption that one can actually choose a simpler life of almost complete happiness by rejecting the idea of insatiable wealth (what, you mean happiness doesn't come from having so much money that you can shower in Patron tequila every day, Festoon your pet ferret with diamonds and eat only endangered Siberian tigers because you can?).

In exchange for all of these experts sharing their well-conceived ideas andgroundbreaking concepts with me, I have, in return, and in their presence, babbled, rambled, got a bit drunk, possibly drooled, and giggled like a 13 year old girl in the presence of Justin Bieber. I think it was a fair exchange.

Holy eff - how did I end up here? In the past month, I've experienced several brain melts from incredible information and conversations with people eons more magnificently brilliant than me. My mind has blown more times than a mountaintop mine in West Virginia. I'd like to think that all the intelligence has in some form rubbed off on me, and I think it has. I feel thoughts are gelling in my head and ideas of what I want to do in the future are coming together (though it could be the pot. I've not even smoked it once you arrive in San Francisco, you become a pothead by default. Walking along the street you are automatically high. Even dogs get stoned when they go on a walk).

I've come to the conclusion that San Francisco is a magical place, more magical than unicorns and marshmallow trees and rainbow-laden three-tailed puppy dogs. Ergo, I expect all of you to come visit me and bask in the waves of progressive thought. Or at least eat Chinese food and smoke pot until you can no longer walk.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

We the people

Okay, so I lied. I was going to tell you about my new apartment, how on my first night in my bright red room (complete with a peace sign tapestry and a Frida Kahlo beaded curtain), I was serenaded at 2 in the morning by my downstairs neighbours wailing the Credence Clearwater Revival Woodstock hippie classic song "Who'll stop the rain," and that I've got huge pair of fishnet-clad plastic legs kicking out of the window across from my room.

But something else happened - I went to Oakland for the General Strike, a part of the Occupy Oakland movement. Oakland is across the Bay from San Francisco, and in parts, is rather downtrodden and economically depressed. However, it is also an incredible intersection of all types of diversity. It has also become a central focus in the Occupy movement due to, among other things, the police assault on a peaceful protester who also happens to be an Iraq war vet. Last week, the organizers of the movement called for a general strike, encouraging everyone to stay home from work and school and join them at the site in solidarity.

Now I've been thinking a lot about the Occupy movements and am increasingly fascinated and excited by what is happening. People are self-organizing with relatively little hierarchy and direction, ensuring everyone is fed (mostly) ensuring everyone is safe (though I understand in Ottawa there have been very scary claims of sexual assault). The movements are finding creative ways around barriers set in their midst (such as at Wall Street, where they've developed an extremely clever human microphone system after a noise volume regulation was issued) and providing spaces where people can learn, discuss, meditate and share. When I found out about the General Strike, I felt it was an opportunity to finally get involved. And so I packed myself on to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, "I'm joining a credit union" sign in hand, and headed east.

Chanting reached my ears as I got off the train, and I emerged into the sunlight amongst young folks, old folks, people of a vast diversity of race, religion, gender, sexuality and socio-economic status. The energy in the area swept me up immediately in an embrace of solidarity. Now I'm not really the kind to get sucked in emotionally but seeing so many people out to really change the status quo brought tears to my eyes more than once.

I wasn't able to stay the whole day but watched with wonder as the movement shut down the ports and with anger as they had to face an ugly clash with police (which the media singularly focused on, rather than the thousands of people who took to the streets). I was inspired by the folks who, facing foreclosure on their homes, went into the a bank branch with furniture and set up a living room in which they sat, refusing to leave and saying to the bank that since they had taken their homes, they had no where else to go.

There is such power in this movement, my friends, such overwhelming, positive energy. I am starting to think that we are at a turning point. People are frustrated that the lie of "work hard and you'll succeed" that they were sold is clearly not coming to fruition. People are ashamed that they can't provide for their families and tired of sitting back as their communities fall apart. These occupy movements, along with the Arab spring and the riots in Europe, are, I hope, heralding in a new paradigm that is more equitable and fosters cooperation and community decision-making.

They don't have all the answers bundled in neat little talking points, and they don't need to. If governments around the world can't figure out how the solve the problems, why the hell should the people have it all figured out. What they have figured out is that our society is failing and things have got to change.

I recognize that this posting is not really as humourous as the others, and I promise I'll return to my silly self in the next posting. But in the meantime, Iencourage all of you to do one thing to help move forward this extremely exciting societal change. Join a credit union and then explain to your big bank why you are breaking up with them, write a letter to the media about what's happening, bring the Occupy movements in your area warm drinks and food, talk to your friends and colleagues about it, participate yourself. This is the people's movement. Let's all be a part of it.