Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pushing Cars towards Community

Snowfall 2008. Vancouver comes to a slushy standstill. And sometimes not just a standstill, but a spin-in-one-place-because-all-season-tires-just-aren’t-that-great-in-the-snow-and-kinda-just-turn-and-turn-and-turn-because-the-combination-of-hills-and-ice-and-slush-just-don’t-jive-so-well-with-less-than-savy-winter-drivers-here-in-The-Couve. This isn’t the East Coast. We do rainy holidays here, man. Not frozen ones. And in this snowy city at this snowy time of year comes a great way to build community.

Now. I could talk about airport line-ups and how, in spite of all the stress and mismanagement and bad luck, people are staying sane and, well, not revolting against each other and Air Canada (and, wow, do we ever know how tempting that is). I could also talk about workplaces, and how people are covering for their co-workers, bosses and subordinates who simply can’t make it into the office because of the weather. And I could talk about all the families who are propositioning pragmatic solutions to complex, snow-related logistical problems (ie. getting from Coquitlam to Abbotsford to Vancouver Island with stops in East Van and Richmond along the way). But the mainstream media is talking enough about that. Today, let’s chat about pushing cars out of the snow. And how it builds community.

That’s right, kids. Mother Nature is making sure that, from Yale Town to The Drive, vehicles – from Z series BMWs to rusted 1980s GMC vans – are being hampered and hemmed in by a record amount of this cold white stuff (honestly, fair enough, given our collectively inhuman behaviour as it relates to poisoning the planet I can understand why she’s a little pissed and not playing by “the rules” or basing her current behaviour on “existing historical data”). And I think part of the reasoning behind this bombardment of inconvenient holiday snow is to test the resilience of our community.

During a walk from Yale Town (we were saying goodbye to a friend who, by publication of this article, will be on his way to Bogota, Columbia for a holiday wedding/kidnapping) back home to Commercial Drive, my friend, Kurt, and I helped to push five cars out of the snow. As of today, we’ve combined to help over a dozen drivers out of snowy situations. Whether you’re an idealistic believer in random acts of kindness or a logical rationalist who wants to stop accidents that will raise everyone’s insurance rates or a health-conscious exerciser who is looking for innovative ways to keep fit whilst snowed-in, this community-building activity is just for you!

And here’s the best thing: helping people out of the snow totally brings out the community-mindedness in us all; not only that, once together, individuals are inspired to look for helpful opportunities (be it car-pushing or otherwise) as they walk around their neighbourhoods. And that’s just considering the people involved in pushing a car out of the snow. Think about all the onlookers who, elated by the idea of frolicking in the snow with their buddies to help someone out, will seek out the chance to build community in a unique way at a festive time of the year.

Excited to help out a stuck, spinning neighbour? Here are five tips and tricks for car-pushing in the snow and the community-building that it entails:

1. Be friendly (like, really friendly). If you’re like me, then you use the holidays as an opportunity to grow a beard and wear grubby clothes with a hilariously ugly toque to match. This might scare people. So, as you rush towards a snowed-in car, be sure to smile and say something like, “hi there friend, we’re here to help you outta this mess! What do you want us to do?” When approaching a stressed-out fellow struggling with a fish-tailing BMW in Yale Town, I can’t stress this point enough. You might want to keep your hands out of your pockets, too.
2. Form a team. Sometimes, one or two people just isn’t enough (man, there are a lot of hills in Vancouver!). Get people involved in your project for, yes, logistical purposes, but also consider how contagious helping others can be. Uniting to remove a car from the snow creates a collective sense of accomplishment that will inspire everyone who helped out to become Pushers (cars, not drugs, people) and to do it again, and again, and again…and again! Pushers will meet new people and inspire them to intervene when others are stuck, which will inspire other people to become pushers and so on.
3. Rock the vehicle. Like physics, it’s so simple, yet so complicated. Rocking the car/van/truck back and forth creates “friction” and this helps to give the car “traction” that will help it to find some “grip” to get out of the snow. While rocking, be mindful of where the exhaust pipe is located on the car – taking in a breath of carbon monoxide just before the driver backs up can introduce you to the dark-side of car pushing. Finally, make sure to have a “three-count” – rocking, pushing and sustaining momentum goes well when everyone is on the same page.
4. If you’re on the scene, get involved! Please don’t get involved in a way that can only be described as “backseat car-pushing,” which consists largely of standing across the street and yelling suggestions like, “hey, turn your wheel!” or “push it more to the left” or “you know, the back wheels aren’t even turning when you push” or “you know, the driver’s just gonna get stuck again” – it’s not at all productive and, quite frankly, a little dickish.
5. Drivers, say thank you. It can just be a wave or a gentle honk, but if you don’t do it, well, people might not push again. Just keep driving as you honk and/or wave, because stopping to say thanks and then getting stuck all over again, while funny, isn’t really that funny.

So there it is. A great way to meet new people, get some exercise and, most importantly, spread some goodwill during the holidays. As Mother Nature gets us stuck, let’s stick together as a community and overcome her efforts to trap pollution-emitting cars in slush fil- … wait a minute. Have I just espoused a foolproof recipe for building community, or has it been all about enabling drivers that shouldn’t be on the road in the first place (for a litany of complex reasons)? Okay, okay. Look. If you see where I’m going with this, please re-read the article and replace the word “car” with “bike” or “senior citizen” – all the other stuff applies just the same. Thanks. Happy holidays!

- John

The Afterword: When Hummer Owners are stuck in the Snow

The last thing I would like to say about car-pushing as community-building is to think hard about whether or not to push Hummer owners out of snow banks. They’ve made their choice to consume in a certain way and, consequently, have joined a different community. Mostly, though, seeing a Hummer stuck in the snow and a wee-man teamed with his inferiority complex and designer girlfriend/escort waste-deep in slush is pretty much the most perfect kind of irony. But that’s another conversation for another time.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Where the 'burbs end and community begins...

I suppose it would be a good idea to start things off on a fresh, honest foot (a foot not in a gumboot, unfortunately) ... I grew up in the suburbs (please, please don't judge). The Burbs. Originating in the 50s, these new developments were touted as the solution to everything that was wrong with the city: why live close to your work or school when you can live farther away, in a bigger more energy consuming house, and spend a large proportion of your life driving in your gas-guzzling vehicle to work, school, the fitness centre, and anywhere else you needed to go? Sure, I may sound a little ... cynical, when it comes to thinking of my childhood in Coquitlam, but with a sustainable mind and a community-driven heart, I can with no good intention say the environment I grew up in was conducive to either.

Community is based in no small part on the build environment: how the physical environment is shaped by humans, and in turn how conducive this arrangement is to such things as capacity to build/sustain community, to lead a sustainable lifestyle, and to be physically active. Think about transportation: in the suburbs, getting around, being social, and being active oftentimes necessitates a vehicle. In the city, you can just walk. In a small town like Merville, well, many of the necessities of daily life can be grown (or shot) from your own backyard. Everyone knows everyone (for better or for worse, as gossip goes...feel free to ask John Horn for some stories...). The suburbs are built to be insular. Houses and cars, and not a lot in between. The sedentary nature of a suburban lifestyle has played a role in the rising obesity epidemic in Canada (did you know that over 50% of Canadians are now considered overweight/obese?). Oh, and another interesting fact: studies show that the rate of heart attack increases with the length of time you are stuck in traffic.

Communities need to be built to encourage, well, community. Open Spaces. Parks and Trails. Mixed Land Use (residential, commercial and organizational). Locally owned businesses. Community Gardens.

In closing, please excuse my upbringing in a community-deficient suburb. Out with gas-guzzlers and in with gumboots,


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Creepy guys ruin it for everyone

Many of us live in cities. Cities aren't very much like Merville. They are big, fast paced, only have bears in gay bars, and shun those that wear large yellow gumboots as fashion anomalies. They aren't a place where everyone knows your name (including an alcholhic mail-man/barfly). They also aren't really a place where Ms. Jones/Smith/Whatever, who's lived down your dirt road for as long as you can remember, brings you and all her other neighbours homebaked apple cobbler every Dec 4 of every year like clockwork.

In cities, community seems far harder to come by. It's very difficult to have a community in a city of 2 million. It's even trickier when people are constantly moving in and out of homes, too and fro in their jobs, and all the while keep their heads down to divert any potential conversations from their neighbours. Because if you don't know someone, they could be crazy or worse, creeepy. And the last thing anyone wants is to be locked in a conversation with a crazy and/or creepy person. Because, as a wise man once said: "Creepy guys ruin it for everyone."

Even in a large neighbourhood like the Drive, it's tricky to really know anyone outside your circle of friends. Proximity enhances friendships that are already formed but rarely seems to lead to new ones altogether. There's just too many people who are too temporary.

So how do we build a community in an urban environment? That my friends is the subject for a later post - or perhaps comment?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Welcome to the Weekly Gumboot!

"John Horn and Vancouver Team: telling it like it is, and calling it as they see it since December 1, 2008 (the soft launch). These kids are world-changers. And you heard it here first."

- Confucius, 442 BC

Merville, British Columbia is the undisputed* Gumboot Capital of Canada. As your host at this stop on your social media journey, I should tell you that I not only hail from Merville, but my upbringing in the tiny Vancouver Island hamlet has done much to shape my worldview. For example, if you have an unhealthy addiction to plaid and think that bears are naturally peaceful, well, you love Merville. Together with a team of unmatched** contributors from around the world, I will do my best to lead an ongoing series of engaging discussions about life, the universe and everything for all co-producers (ie. you, the interactive and collaborative visitor) to enjoy.

I'm also going to mention pirates a fair bit because of their spectacular historical, cultural, political, economical, and grammatical relevance to our ever flattening global village. Stay tuned, there's much more to come...

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome to gumboot country! Have fun with it.

*may or may not be disputed by several competing gumboot enthusiasts...

**might possibly be matched...