Saturday, January 31, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities - Democracy

Have you ever caught yourself wondering why our societies zigzag all across the ideological spectrum? This political party is too conservative!! No, it's too liberal!!! We love the environment and must save it!!! But wait! Not at the expense of the economy!!! Taxes are too high! Cut the GST! Dammit, if we'd been paying 7% instead of 5% over these past two years, that would have made Canada's future deficit so much lower - taxes are good!!! I love the Olympics! I hate the Olympics!!! Oh, democracy, how did you get this way?

At times, our communities seem to be steering a wayward, unpredictable course through ideology and governance in the world around us. Not unlike a pirate ship.

You see, the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine sailed straight, authoritarian courses. But not pirates. No way. And do you know why? Because the crew, not the captain, decided where the ship was going. In fact, the captain couldn't even be captain until the crew voted him into, um, office. Because, my little scallywags, pirate ships were bastions of democracy!

One hundred years before the French Revolution, pirate ships - or pirate companies - were run on the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood. It was the rule, rather than the exception. According to scholar and fellow Piratologist, David Cordingly, author of Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, at times, it was difficult to even get a pirate ship going anywhere. You see, the crew actually voted on a destination before the captain set a course; arguably, this accounted for pirates' time being spent in warm places like the Caribbean, Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca.

Like our Charter of Rights and Freedoms or our American friends' Constitution, pirates drafted and signed "The Articles of Piracy" before each voyage. These articles regulated the distribution of plunder, the scale of compensation for injuries in battle, and outlined basic rules for shipboard life (ie. no one is allowed to drink all the rum and/or molest the goat) as well as punishments for those who broke the rules (ie. you molested the goat, now it won't give milk, so we're going to squeeze you in a vice until you give milk). After the articles were written, every pirate aboard signed them.

Given all this, when it comes to democracy, what have we learned from pirate communities?
  • The onlooking attraction of democracy: when a pirate ship attacked and captured a merchant vessel, the crew of the merchant ship was given the chance to join the pirates. Most sailors did. As with any country's immigration tests, processes and required cultural-acceptance, new members of a pirate brethren were expected to behave accordingly. Just like today, people working and living in corrupt oligarchies (like the merchant marine, epitomized by the East India Trading Company or Venetian salt merchants) or authoritarian regimes (like the Royal Navy) can't wait to jump-ship and join a democracy, where everyone got a share of the loot (more or less...just like a modern democracy!)
  • Democracies facilitate social and cultural leveling: pirate ships yielded a collection of multi-cultural castaways, escaped African slaves, openly homosexual seamen, and even women. Did they all get along all the time? No, absolutely not. However aboard these ships began the wonderful journey towards equality and multiculturalism.
  • Democracies aren't getting us anywhere fast: pirate ships were aimless, inefficient over the long term (though incredibly productive in the short term), and were constantly in search of stuff - or 'booty'. As with our modern democracies, pirates were - and still are - driven by a romanticized concept of consumerism. Treasure - be it gold or silver or slaves or tobacco or sugar or rum - gave them purpose. They lived day-to-day, and weren't terribly concerned with the big, long-term picture. Captain's were worried about getting re-elected (or not killed by their crew), not about a sustainable policies that involved immediate sacrifices for long-term profits. Kinda sorta like our leaders today, who can't make any progress on meaningful environmental stewardship. They're a little too concerned about boot-, err, the economy and it's short-term, re-electing significance.
So there it is. Pirates, democracy and our seemingly pirate-like communities in Canada. If you'll excuse me, I need to go draft February's "Articles of The Gumboot" before Kurt organizes a mutiny. Thanks for your time. Watch out for pirates!

- Sir John the Pirate Piratologist

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mental Health and Community

It's an ongoing struggle trying to figure out how we, as a community, can take care of our most vulnerable citizens. For a while, those with disorders and addictions were sheltered in among their relatives. Then we institutionalized it all and put the onus on governments. Nowadays, neither the institutions nor, often people's relatives, seem to be capable of taking care of folks.

That has left a gap, which has spawned the Downtown Eastside and all its sad consequences.

One of the best ways of helping people to become more healthy is to connect them to healthy role models, neighbours, services, and community. Despite NIMBY protests that are sure to arise, its important to ensure folks who need help are integrated into healthy communities. That's right Kerrisdale and Dunbar.

Only once we start accepting our most vulnerable (and often most difficult to handle) neighbours back into our community can we really build a place that's a real model on "diversity".

Let's Get Naked!

My on-going love affair with my community gym reached a new height last night. I finally decided to go swimming.  

For me, what contributes, if not kick-starts, dialogue within a community is a sense of nostalgia and all that we have in common with it. I am a nostalgic person. I watch re-runs of 1990's sitcoms, I search YouTube for Paula Abdul dance videos and episodes of The Real Ghostbusters. And I look forward to anything that reminds me I was once a human being who had relatively little to worry about aside from choreographing "Forever Your Girl" and Saturday morning cartoons. It is a comfort to know that there are some things in this world that don't change. For example, the Democratic Principles that govern Pirate ships, no? And there's also the fact that there will always be naked people in the public pool change room. Well, naked women at least. I can't say I've wandered into the men's change room at the community center, so I wouldn't know whether they show it all or not. 

I remember taking swimming lessons when I was a very little girl and noticing how some women showered in the nude and others kept their swimsuits on. I might have been uncomfortable at first, but I've come around to the idea. 

Now, as a fellow Gumboot contributor, I'm attracted to lists, tables and models. Therefore, my reasoning for changing in the nude is threefold, albeit brief:

Reason #1 - Changing and showering in the nude contributes to the breakdown of the relationship between beauty and media and brings it back to where it belongs - the eye of the beholder. 

Reason #2 - Although semi-exclusive (only women in the women's change room are the ones to see it, the same with men) it's a visual testament to the diversity living around you and within your very own sex.

Reason #3 - And finally, it allows you to be far more comfortable changing in and out of your clothes and wet swimsuits.  I mean, come on.... how beautiful and graceful can you look while balancing on one foot trying to get your toe through your underwear and still holding up a towel and peeling off a wet swimsuit? That's ridiculous.

It was shocking at first, stripping down around other women before and after my swim. But it also served me as a reminder that we build up walls and routine around everything we do from eating at our dinner tables to showering in our bathrooms. Sometimes, it's a really good thing to break down those walls and step out of that routine and remind yourself that you are surrounded by flesh and blood.

So folks... think community and get naked!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Bus - An Analysis

The links between community-creation, design and transit are the subject of numerous studies and authoritative scholarly interviews at the macro level of construction and development projects. What about the micro-level? What can happen on an individual bus to create community?

Broadway can traversed by either the double digit express or the more sedate single digit commuter buses. The express buses are generally double-length monstrosities attached by an accordion joint; the slower commuter buses tend to be low-floor, accessible and a single length long. Each route attracts a different kind of user. Around Commercial or Clark in East Van there are shaky drug users, lower income moms and dads, single hipster romantics and community college students. Getting toward Granville and into Point Grey and UBC the demographic changes to one of middle-class undergrads, well-off young professionals and satisfied couples exposing their first child to the world.

Today, travelling from Clark to Arbutus on the #9, I choose a commuter bus over the express bus. I was feeling lazy and it was a beautiful day. On that bus there was community.

  1. It is a sunny and bright weekend day after 18 straight days of low cold fog

  2. Groups of friends on the bus were chattering merrily

  3. At one point the bus was suddenly cut off by a motorist. A number of riders were nearly knocked off their feet.

  4. At the next intersection the bus driver opened his window and loudly berated the motorist

  5. Just after Clark a young man sat beside me and asked if I was getting off soon as he would be pleased to make room for me to exit the bus.

  6. On learning I was going all the way to Arbutus, we started a random dialogue that included discussions of New York friendliness versus Vancouver friendliness, where East Van started and Central Van ended, what would happen to Vancouver if everyone acted more like Clint Eastwood and the irony having a School of Architecture in an “architecturally illiterate“ building.

  7. Two young girls were trying to find out from the bus driver where a particular restaurant was – he asked the passengers over the PA if anyone could help them. Someone did. They then engaged in a conversation with this women about their art project.

  8. The bus itself was recently built with a variety of seating types (singles, doubles, facing each other, facing the front, areas for wheelchairs and baby buggies, etc.)

How did these events cause community?

Let us use an action/reaction matrix to track these events:




It is a weekend and the day is sunny and bright after 18 straight days of cold fog

People are generally content

Social norms are more flexible as individuals are less defensive

Bus was suddenly cut off by a motorist

The bus driver publicly berated the motorist

An external threat bands the riders together in outrage

A stranger engages me in dialogue

I respond to his somewhat unusual conversation

Strangers have affirmed each other's meaning, existence and importance

Two young girls were trying to find a particular restaurant

Driver used public knowledge to help them.

Leadership and public resources are effectively exercised

Friends are talking loudly

Social norm is to be talking

Conversations between strangers are possible

Bus has a variety of seating types

Engagement between passengers is facilitated

From this matrix, it is clear that community was created by three main factors: public leadership was exercised by the designated communal authority – the bus driver. Individual risk takers break social norms and are responded to positively. A good environment was in place with the weather, time of day and seating layout.

Are these factors dependent on one another? Is there a hierarchy of necessities for a bus-based community? The next step would be to test each condition independently. On a cold, rainy day what happens when you try to talk to the person next to you? Can a bus driver create community just by making the right leadership choices?

My personal suspicion is that they are all necessary. As with the macro-level, public leadership, individual risk-taking and a well-designed built environment will create community. Let us remember that we are the community and must do these things ourselves.

community and the family dinner

Last night, some of The Weekly Gumboot staffers were fortunate enough to partake in one of the most quintessential moments of community: the family dinner. Seven of us were there. Five of us were then (and are now) under 30. Two were then (and are now) "grown-ups" or "parents." And from 6:42pm until 8:51pm we laughed, philosophized, debated, ate, drank, and sustained our inter-familial community.

If you're looking to have fun with it during a dinner part of family dinner, consider employing some of these helpful hints:
  • Diversify your Conversation: I don't know about you, but I struggle immensely with pauses in a conversation. So, when it comes to good conversation, it's always good to have a few ideas in your back pocket. At one point our discussion segued from climate change to unibrows to German Holocaust guilt to macaroni and cheese. Obviously, some of the more, well, delicate topics (like unibrows) must be arrived at gently; however, with a good group of people, it will undoubtedly go somewhere fun if you ask a question like: "So, what do you think about the role of ninjas in the current global economic crisis?"*
  • Eat Well: It's all pretty simple. Whatever you're good at cooking, cook it! Good food (which is a totally relative concept: my friends Kurt and Theo like to braise and slow-cook things of the gourmet variety, while my aunt and uncle add bacon to Kraft Dinner) brings people together in a beautiful way.
  • Be Nice: You might not agree with a certain point of an argument or the tact taken to present an idea, but when you're a guest in someone's house (and their feeding you!) know when to say, "I think we can agree to disagree." And if you're a host, don't push an issue when it's clear that there's a divergence in points of view. My friend has a great shirt that simply states, "Jesus says: 'Don't be a dick'." Jesus is right.
  • Be Inclusive: If someone at the table isn't saying much, try seeing if they want to be involved in the discussion. Asking questions is a great way to motivate the shier - or uninterested - members of the dinner table into the conversation. It will make you well-liked, too. Perhaps even an expert conversationalist!
  • Take Risks, and Don't be Boring: Be yourself. And obviously keep your comments within the realm of societal acceptance. This being said, play to your audience and don't be afraid to make things interesting. If you have a good team at the table, they'll acknowledge your successes and failures with body language or the occasional, "wow, I honestly can't believe you just said that..." If you feel momentum, run with it. And know that it's always a good idea to leave on a high-note. When in doubt, try relating random parts of the evening (such as macaroni and cheese) to pirates: "the Sicilian pirate, Captain Macaroni, made a name for this type of pasta by drowning his victims in huge tubes of it!"
So there it is. Some ideas from everywhere that will help us all navigate our next dinner party.

A bientot!

- John

*Ninjas, as we know, have been pulling strings in the shadows for years. Backroom deals, secret operations, expert assassinations, taking orders from Dick Cheney, and battling Batman in epic hand-to-hand combat over the future of Gotham City.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"millions of small beginnings"

I wish I could take credit for conceptualizing and penning the title of this post. But I can't. And I won't.

These words belong to a much, much wiser and impactful man than I (but I'm getting there - we're getting there - and The Gumboot is our voice). On Wednesday, January 21 I was lucky enough to hear Goran Carstedt - former CEO of Volvo and IKEA, currently working with the Clinton Foundation on its Climate Action Project - present on the topic of Leadership and Climate Change. Inspiring stuff, let me tell you.

And here's why. It was because of the "millions of small beginnings" concept he eloquently espoused to the audience.

I'll just let that sink in for a sec.

Got it?


Dr. Carstedt was talking about the "millions of small beginnings" as they related to the Industrial Revolution - an event that pulled so many of us in the Western world out of poverty and into delicious modernity. Yes...I recognize the profound complexity of the previous statement because of the industrialized warfare, technological manipulation and moral poverty that modernism has also thrust upon us. Think about it, though, today the world - in spite of what so many sensational people in the media and on street corners (and even my friend, The Professor, at the Commercial/Broadway Skytrain Station) - is actually more peaceful than it's ever been. And, clearly, many of us are eating pretty darn well. And we've got a collective disposable income - as well as access to credit - that has allowed us to grow our businesses, families, intellect, communities, and our worldly experiences to incredible new levels. We've connected ourselves in amazing ways and have made our planet smaller. And the best thing about the Industrial Revolution is that it was not mandated by a government or an oligarchical collective of powerful businessmen or by workers of the world. It came from millions of small beginnings. Organically. Democratically. Beautifully.

And then there's the flip side. There's the part of the story where we went and fucked it all up. Organically. Democratically. Beautifully.

Poison and poverty plague our planet. And so many of us out there work in jobs we don't like to buy things we don't need. Our economy is volatile (as it turns out Adam Smith's invisible hand seems to be corrupt, incompetent, ignorant and is constantly touching parts of Milton Friedman's lingering spirit in the dirtiest of ways) and our leaders care more about getting re-elected than they do about big picture, long-term strategies that will save our planet. And some people have lost hope.

But we shouldn't. You shouldn't. Because right now. Today. Right here. From the hallowed confines of The Gumboot to electric-free villages in Zambia. There are millions of small beginnings. It's happening right now. Together, as a community, with our ideas from everywhere we are sewing the seeds and laying the groundwork for a new kind of ecological, economic and anthropological stewardship for this poor little planet of ours. I'm excited to see what happens. You should be too.

Oh and, um, to all my teammates out there. Let's not fuck this one up. Time's a bit of an issue...

Be a great day.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities - The Overview

Hi there, Gumboot Enthusiasts. As promised by the tag-line of this publication, some of our conversations will discuss pirates. After all, these figures - real and imagined - are a popularized jumping off point for investigation, adventure and discovery; where fact meets fiction and romance meets reality. Most importantly, there is a lot we can learn from pirate communities, as they tend to mirror our own lives - in a much drunker, violent and more fashionable way.

Moving on...

A little about the credentials that allow me to expertly teach others about pirates, privateers and buccaneers. Not only does the Editor-in-Chief of The Weekly Gumboot (ie. me) hold a Masters in Naval History from the University of the Bahamas and a Ph.D in Piracy from the University of Singapore, but I was also fortunate enough to co-found the School of Arts and Piracy at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia. Recently, I created and taught the incredibly popular graduate-level course, Pirates: Romance and Reality at the college.* But, hey, being a registered Piratologist (officially - especially when the Coast Guard and CSIS are asking - I am not a real pirate) isn't all researching and writing of rum, romancing wenches and roughhousing. Sometimes, Piratologists are asked to change the world.

And, with that in mind, it is my pleasure to introduce a new series here at The Weekly Gumboot. The ongoing stories in Learning from Pirate Communities seek to explore the connection and ideas between pirates (of past and present) and our global community.

Over the coming weeks and months, we will explore the following topics:
  • Democracy: Barack Hussein Obama might've just taken this tired ideology** to the next level, but did you know that the first example of written democratic principles was completed on a pirate ship?
  • Health Insurance/Workers' Compensation: Depending on what body part (eye, hand, leg) you lost during pillaging, the "Articles of Piracy" (agreement signed by the Captain and crew) outlined the appropriate financial compensation for the aforementioned off-lopping of limbs. Fun fact: pirates were compensated the most if they lost their right arm.
  • Personal/Corporate Branding: Pirates were conceptualized as more notorious, violent and cruel than they actually were. And this came about because of dynamic, creative and effective "branding." Black Bart's flag depicted him having a glass of wine with Death. That's badass, man. So, how do you sell yourself?
  • Racial Equality: A complex and contentious issue, for certain; however, with escaped slaves, Central American Natives and Frenchmen finding common ground aboard a pirate ship, well, a certain amount of cultural leveling and acceptance took place.
  • Women's Rights: Ann Bonny and Mary Read were two of the most notorious pirates in the Caribbean. More important, though, is the legacy of Madam Cheng - she was arguably the greatest pirate in history, at one point commanding a fleet of over 10,000 vessels. Needless to say, they were quite the pioneers for gender equality!
  • Storytelling: if there was only one recorded incident of a pirate making someone walk the plank, why is this phenomenon so effectively associated with these scurvy buccaneers? It's all about being able to spin a good yarn, mateys!
  • Networking: in the world of pillage and plunder (and eventually becoming the Governor of Jamaica, like Captain Henry Morgan did), it's all about who you know...
  • Entrepreneurship: Somalia is probably the worst place on Earth. And yet a community of former fishermen (foreign over-fishing and pollution have depleted stocks beyond repair) have found a niche market for risky a career endeavour: hijacking oil tankers! This creative, outside-the-box thinking is getting them noticed, too!!!
  • Creativity and the Access of Information: When they looked/look at the global economy, pirates see it in shades of grey. Whether it's creatively carrying out a client's business plan at the barrel of a gun and the tip of a cutlass or downloading songs, shows and movies, pirates have always used (are currently using) technology to challenge the status quo.
So there it is. A preview of what's to come on The Weekly Gumboot. As you await the next installment of Learning from Pirate Communities, prepare yourselves to be edutained!


- Sir John the pirate Piratologist

*Factual Disclaimer: educational allusions may or may not be "real" and "accredited" credentials and it may or may not be more about a supercool video created by the marketing team at Camosun College...
**Johnnism, an up-and-coming ideology promises to inspire an ever-shrinking global community with fresh perspectives on what it means to be named "John"...and much, much more...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Vancouver drivers - honk if you want to build community!

Vancouver’s drivers are an agreeable and, on the whole, competent lot. After years dodging cars on Toronto’s streets, jay walking in Vancouver is a treat, free from peril and ill will. Where else can you gingerly venture out onto a big downtown street like Robson or Denman and discover that not just cars, but even cabs immeditately slow to a halt and wave you merrily across? If I tried a stunt like that in Munich, Paris let alone Montreal or Ottawa, I’d have been road kill long ago. Experiences such as these are unique to a big city like Vancouver and to me they are a positive indicator that a convivial, community oriented spirit is alive and well in this fair city.

Nonetheless, just like any metropolis, our motorists are plagued by high levels of incompetence, recklessness and needlessly uncouth behaviour. Most of this is rooted in road rage. However sorely tempted, I will avoid raging about the incompetent, erratic and downright scary drivers at the wheels of luxury vehicles all over Vancouver and the threat they pose to the safety of our urban community. As Gumboot contributor, John Horn, aptly points out, when these nifty cars become stranded in two inches of snow, an opportunity for creating community emerges and fellow citizens can throw their weight behind fancy bumpers, building community in the process. But, I digress –

After travelling in Peru for the past three weeks, I have come upon a simple solution, to chipping away at road rage and resurrecting community on the road. Let’s use the car horn differently.

Aside from weddings, North Americans only resort to the horn in moments of emotionally-driven need – honking to express anger, impatience or fear. Peruvian drivers use their horns liberally and cheerfully and so they become the harmonious language of the street. Traffic rules, traffic lights and traffic headaches are strangely absent while honking creates a healthy atmosphere of give and take to each intersection.

Vancouver’s eight lane intersections are replete with complicated traffic light systems where motorists “get the rage”. A similar intersection in Lima has a simple turning circle and that’s it. Peruvian drivers enter at will, give a merry honk, receive a merry honk in response from those in the circle and potential fender benders are avoided. Cab drivers even individualize their horns so that some taxis emit a jolly, three-note hooting while others give a little whistle. Annoying? Not really. The sound just becomes part of the music of the street and the aural evidence of a community of drivers which knows how to get along.

Should Vancouver scrap its traffic lights and institute a honking free for all in the name of reducing road rage and building community? No. This would backfire. But still, can’t we at least take a leaf out of Peru’s book? In doing so, I believe we could build better on-road communties. How about giving a little “beep, beep” when someone is a slow poke, or a cyclist doesn’t see you, rather than resorting to a sketchy, right lane passing manoeuvre, or to a full-on horn lean? I for one am in the market for a car horn that gets my message across via the tune of a merry jig – that Lima taxi man has one, why shouldn’t I?

Prejudice in my Community

Hypocrisy is probably integral to any community. And it is disappointing that, in this age of Obamania, people cannot be accepted for who they are, what they look like, and even what they wear. Let me explain.

In a lot of ways, I more than fit the mold of someone who lives on The Drive (see picture to the left). Growing up in the tiny, gumboot-clad hamlet of Merville on Vancouver Island instilled several "all natural" and "organic" and even "hippy" values in my heart, mind and soul - my family grew, harvested and ate our own delicious vegetables and eggs from our own delicious garden and chickens. Dating an Italian Princess for a few years also heightened my ability to communicate exceptionally well through hand gestures. Tolerance, open-mindedness and a sense of community define my daily routine, and I'm pretty good when it comes to laughing at myself (which helps a lot when I participate in street theatre or other interactive activities in my neighbourhood, such as dance-offs with Spoon Man). As one can imagine, all these things come in handy when habitating in the Commercial Drive area. And, to tell you the truth, my neighbourhood and I get along exceptionally well.

Well, for the most part. Most of the time. Just not the times when I'm dressed in clothes that can only be described as the antithesis of Drive-wear. For you see, the community on The Drive is prejudice against business attire.

So, I work at UBC. Sometimes, my work requires me to wear a suit (when I can, I do my best to keep it real and rock a corduroy jacket). And when these sometimes arise - wow - the difference of my experience walking or riding home from the sky train station to the north end of Commercial Drive is, well, quite a statement on behalf of my neighbourhood, my community. This concept is realized photographically by the picture* to the right.

Look. I get it. I understand the symbolism of a suit in a neighbourhood founded and popularized by immigrants, hippies and the coolest counterculture this side of Montreal. A lack of affordable housing around the Lower Mainland and the gentrification of The Drive are serious world-changing issues of which I know I'm a part. So, perhaps this espousal aims at getting people to think about how they look at someone; especially when so many of us might not really know what the people we're judging actually stand for.

Let's also not forget - as we think about what people in suits stand for - to consider the people in disguise on The Drive. The people who are also part of the gentrification of this neighbourhood, but who use a clever couture to blur such a reality. These are the Cloud Men** of the world. And the young folks who whip out their iPhone, iPod and iMac just after sitting down on the bus. But they don't get looks, 'cause their style is a good "fit" for Commercial Drive.

There's nothing wrong with these folks or the way they carry themselves (unless, of course, they're unfairly judging the suit-wearers or other outside-the-mold people of the world). For the most part, they're not - we're not - better or worse than each other. We're just different.

If you ask me, community is about acceptance. With a new chapter of hope, change and tolerance unfolding south of the border - eventually permeating the global community in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead - hopefully my dirty plaid will begin to go over in Yale Town just like my necktie does in the East End Food Co-op. Because, after all, I'm just a guy like everyone else in this neighbourhood. I just happen to be a dude who wears a suit from time to time.

Thanks for your time, understanding and acceptance.

- John

*BIG THANKS to Joe and the good people at the Bump 'n' Grind. I just want to, first, highly recommend the Double Americano at this fantastic coffee shop that is located at the corner of Commercial and Venables. Joe was a great sport and indulged us in our little photoshoot. He is, clearly, all about community and acceptance.
**Oh Cloud Man. Your disguise is impeccable. Man, when I moved here last year (February 2008) and watched you twirl your staff up and down The Drive only one thing seemed out of place...for some reason, you always had a disposable coffee cup in your hand. Always. I would like to follow you around for a day, my friend...I want to know what you stand for...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Craigslist Experience: More than a One Night Stand

I’ve recently been indoctrinated into a new and exciting community: The Craigslist Community. I must admit, my entrance was neither graceful nor fully desired. My apprehension about joining this virtual community was centered around the fact that it was, well, virtually casual. Now don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against virtual communities, per say. If I did, it would be rather hypocritical of me to be a Weekly Gumboot contributor and a Masters student completing my degree online. The difference, I think, can be demonstrated with the following ‘continuum of a relationship’ analogy: Craigslist is kinda like a one night stand. The connection between individuals is short, sweet, and superficial. The ‘boot is akin to a committed relationship – a sustainable marriage of ideas (from everywhere) from a dedicated group of individuals (I suppose this would be a rather polygamous relationship, but you get the picture …). It was this (presumed) starchy superficiality of Craigslist that kept me at a safe (virtual) distance from the site.

And then I caved. A series of unfortunate events in a chaotic move to the ‘Drive (of a scale and scope not dissimilar to those that confronted Mr. Snicket) propelled me into the Craigslist world. And I saw that although the relationships that are cultivated are indeed brief, they are meaningful nonetheless, and can contribute to a kinder, more considerate, and better connected community.

A few Craigslist jaunts to exemplify:

1.) The Australian Mattress Seeker.

In my move, I had a mattress that I no longer needed. I posted it for free on Craigslist, and got a response from an Australian backpacker-type who had just arrived in Canada, and had no furniture or money to her name. She really wanted my free mattress, and was willing to trek over to Kits, in the rain, and attempt to transport it back to the hostel she was staying at downtown. By herself. Without a vehicle. Don’t ask me how in the world she was planning on doing this. In a display of good will, two friends and I delivered the mattress (along with pillows and sheets) to her downtown. The gratitude she displayed was payment thrice over. And in her eyes, Canada is forever golden.

2.) The Anti-Community: Antique stores.

Antique stores, to me, exemplify everything a community should not be. Having some antique furniture that needed to be sold in the move, my partner and I went down to a few on the Drive. The owners at each were rude, arrogant, and pretentious: “Antique Pine? [insert shudder]. You will not be finding anything of that style here”; “Now, let me teach you a lesson about second hand dealings, dear”. The stores either refused to even have a look at the desk and chair we had, or tried to low-ball us beyond belief. All in all, a horrible experience. One Craigslist posting and two hours later, they were both sold to a delightful woman, at a reasonable price. They were exactly what she was looking for, and it was a pleasant experience all around.

3.) Recruiting into the Craigslist Family.

Posting my outdated stereo system (almost antique material itself, with tape decks and all) on Craigslist, I didn’t expect to get a whole lot of bids. And I didn’t. But the one I did get led to a perfect sale, a delightful chat with the buyer, and a new recruit into the Craigslist family. A grandmother whose grandson had broken her stereo system was looking for a simple one that would play her old tapes as well as CDs. It was her first time on Craigslist, and I hope I represented this community well. Mary came over to pick up the stereo, and while she was waiting for a cab to get back home, we had tea and had a great conversation about life, love, the universe and everything. Like me, she was a bit apprehensive about the whole “Craigslist thing”. But after her positive entrance into the community (getting tea and some free CDs out of the deal), she emailed me to thank me, and to let me know that she no longer felt intimidated by Craig or his list.

So to all of you Craigslisters out there – I implore you to uphold the good name of this community. Whether your experience remains a one night stand or develops into a deeper relationship, be kind, be honest, and be open to the possibilities that may come before you.

Vancouver's Culinary Community - and its hidden treasures

Vancouver has a thriving culinary scene. One need only go to Barbara Jos Books to Cooks, the foodie worlds cook book mecca and consult with matron de manger (Barbara Jo) to see the diverse chefs and restaurants creating phenomenal local meals. Bishops, Lumiere, Togos, the Hermitage, and the Four Seasons are just a couple of Vancouver's top culinary offers. But while these restaurants are tasty, they're also expensive.

So expensive that at first glance, it may seem the city's culinary community may be a bit exclusive. But if you delve a bit deeper there appears so many wonderful, and equally satisfying alterntives to dropping $200 on a fresh, local and gourmet meal for two.

For those of us who appreciate good food, but don't enjoy paying an arm and a leg for it, you should consider visiting one of Vancouver's culinary schools. Vancouver Community College downtown, the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, or the Northwest Culinary Academy each offer discount, and delicious food for a reasonable price. They offer sit down and cafeteria service. Last time I was there I feasted on salmon croquette, thin slice potato frites and tarragon glazed carrots. My friend purchased veal parmegon, cheese califlower, and buttered green beans. It came to a little less than $7 each. That's McDonalds value, but thankfully not McDonalds taste nor nutritional value.

For a more upscale dining experience you can sample all the food of rising four star chefs (as well as those destined for less glamourous appointments) at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. Full three course lunchs are a reasonable $24.00. That's a third of the price the meal might cost in some of Vancouver's more oppulent restaurants.

These are just a couple great spots to check out gourmet eating on a budget. If you have any other suggestions, ideas please comment on them below.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The "Good" News: In Defense of (shudder) the Media (the old fashioned kind) and it's Contribution to Community.

Yesterday, I opened the Thursday edition of the Vancouver Sun. I'm happy to report that my eyes landed on two articles, one big, one small, each facing each other, that sounded like conversation starters: green thinking with a community angle. The stuff we gumboot-wearing bloggers love.

In a special to the "Sun", Nicholas Read wrote about "Green Graves." It's the newest rage in cemetery circles, laying to rest in a biodegradable bag among the trees, sans-embalming. Read points out that this burial process has been practiced by BC First Nations for centuries. Now, cemetery directors and a few government officials are starting to adopt the idea to the land designated for the deceased. 

Opposite the green graves story was an article about cobblers and their rise in popularity. According to the article, more and more people are opting to bring their old shoes in for repair rather than buy new ones. I can attest to this errand. Just a few weeks ago, I brought two pairs of shoes in to my local cobbler and probably got another couple of years out them. Score!

On the next page over, there was an article about Vancouver's classic east-side butcher, Save-On-Meats. I don't know whether you've heard or not, but it could shut down as early as March.  The owner is ready to retire and hoping to sell the business. So far, there are no bidders. It's a classic, sad story: a Vancouver landmark shutting down for good. But it also appeals to the Vancouverite in me: a lover of all things "local." And it serves my point: that amid the "doom and gloom" of our economic situation and the "dramatic" vocabulary of Canada's news wire, you'll find there's "good" news out there - in every sense of the word. 

So I challenge you to challenge your news. The stories your paper produces should be stimulating water-cooler, nay, Brita-filter conversation, at least if they want to survive Web 2.0 without losing out completely to citizen journalism and everything else available for reading on the web.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Who's to blame for this Olympic "scandal"?

Warning: You may not like the answer.

Right now there's raging fury in the city's political community. Residents of the city call into radio stations complaining about the irresponsibility of their elected representatives. City hall has received a blizzard (pun intended) of emails complaining about everything from the snow fall to the more wide reaching (and potentially damaging) Millennium loan debacle.

How could city politicians agree to hundreds of millions of dollars of financing to the Olympic Village? Who's to blame? Is it Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson? How about Sam Sullivan, Suzanne Anton, and the NPA - the folks who way back in 2007 guaranteed the development's financing? The economy - it has got to be the economy, right?

The reality is that the decision to bring the Olympics to Vancouver was voted on in a referendum and approved of by the citizens of Vancouver. The costs, prohibitive or reasonable, were an unknown crap shoot as critics of the deal made painfully clear many years ago (back when our economy was booming). Vancouverites listened to the debate and then they voted for the Olympics despite the uncertainty. Fair enough. The people had spoken and when it's all said and done, perhaps it will turn out to be a good decision after all.

However, now that everything is turning sour, many people have begun to change their minds - blasting their politicians on mismangement all the while expecting the Games be carried out with promptly, professionally and perfectly. They say, "Build the Olympic Village that I voted for and host the games in my city, but I don't want any responsibility for it."

Any workable community requires its members to take responsibility for their decisions. It's important to keep in mind that, when you get right down to it, if Vancouver were not having the games here in 2010, the Millennium development would not need to be finished (if in fact it would actually exist) on such a tight of a timeline. Indeed the entire project would remain privately developed never risking your tax dollars.

So the next time you're looking for who are responsible for this situation - if you "backed the bid", take a look in the mirror.

The Engaging Workplace

Believe it or not, people, most Canadians spends more time at (or on the way to/from) work than at home with family. It's not just the actual 35 or 37.5 or 40 or 70 hours at work with colleagues to think about, either. There's also the commuting (some of you out there spend three hours a day in your car or sleepily standing during a bus/skytrain combo-trip). You also might grocery shop or play a sport or volunteer somewhere outside the home, away from your family, significant other or cat/dog/iguana. I remember when I told a colleague of mine this statistic a few years ago. She wasn't happy. And she became a little depressed.

So, what's the point of depressing you? Well, when it comes to "career development" and "community building" at work, I'm a bit of an expert. I'll preface the pending "expertise" by acknowledging my ongoing adventures in lifelong learning as well as my adherence to the old adage: "the first thing you need to know about being smart is that you're stupid." I won't pretend to know
everything and history shows that I'm pretty stupid, but, as The Gumboot professes, our team has some good ideas...from everywhere.

As a Career Educator at the University of British Columbia, my work involves, well, preparing students for work. I also work on a team with 20 fantastic colleagues. So, given the above concept (we spend more time per week at work than anywhere else) it is important to consider how we can employ this professional and social space as a vehicle for positively impacting the community...and ourselves!

First, there are a lot of dysfunctional workplaces out there. Trust me, I've seen storylines from
The Office reproduced in real time in real life. I know a guy who knows a guy who began his career in a place where, for his first four months on the job, every staff meeting ended with someone crying. It was like The Office, except instead of humour there was only twice as much awkwardness...

But I digress...

My point is that one of the ways that the aforementioned semi-dysfunctional team came together was when the boss organized a volunteer opportunity with the good folks at Habitat for Humanity. As the story goes, the job was to build a fence at one of the project houses in the city. And build they did! Whether it was a "good" or "straight" or "well built" fence is irrelevant, but it certainly brought their little workplace community together in a positive way. And it could've gone just the opposite way, as hammers, nails and a bevy of sharp power tools were all at arms-reach.

Second, let's move from a team-based-project bringing the workplace together and take it to the next level. Recently, I was asked by my boss to spearhead a Christmas Community Engagement project for our office. We chose to head to the Salvation Army's Belkin House (talk to Eva, the Volunteer Coordinator if you want to help out) and made dinner and wrapped presents. This was a different kind of community-building. Our team is solid and amazing, hardly dysfunctional. We were given an opportunity to engage our surrounding community and make an impact as a group. There were three main outcomes:

Outcometh the first: it's like when people try to "make a difference" in Africa - we went in trying to help people less fortunate than us, and ended up getting more out of the experience than we ever gave. Helping out makes you feel great as individuals and as a team.
Outcometh the second: we made people smile. So many community-outreach programs succeed and fail on the backs and in the good hearts of volunteers. This was one of the successes, and we genuinely made a difference - albeit little and tiny in the grand scheme of things - in our community.
Outcometh the third: ripple effects. Since taking part in this project on December 8, 2008, many of us have gone back to volunteer again. All of us are on the volunteer call list. And we are currently in the process of building and sustaining an ongoing partnership with Belkin House. Not only that, we have become leaders, as other groups at UBC have approached us asking to join our effort. Because when you help people out, man, it's contageous.

From a career education perspective, being the office "philanthropist" or "helper" puts you in an excellent position. Helping others - positively engaging your community - is hard to say no to.* Done well and chalked full of smiles and thank-yous, these kinds of projects are the sort of thing that a new employee can take on to showcase their leadership and organizational skills as well as their unpretentious commitment to social justice. Inspiring others to be the change they want to see in the world is, after all, a pretty cool feeling.

To summarize, think about getting your office together to positively engage your community. Whether it's serving a meal, organizing a food/toy-drive event, providing free-expertise to those who need it, or "building" a fence, the impact you make will bring your team closer together while making a whole buncha people smile. Getting involved is easy (Vancouver's not even
close to being a city of equal opportunity) - just check out for more information.

Now is a great time to help out. The holiday season inspires a lot of people to volunteer in soup kitchens, community centres, not-for-profits, shelters, and the food bank. The problem is that people are poor all year long, not just at Christmas. And the economic downturn is hurting the downtrodden more than anyone else. Especially in Vancouver. Community-engagement needs to be sustained all year long. So think about how you - and your team at the office - can make the most of your time together change the world today. You might even change yourselves and change your team-dynamic while you're at it. And it's a good feeling!

Thanks. And as you get your colleagues together on a volunteer project, remember:
have fun with it!


*John's Humour-in-the-Workplace Tip: if you want to be helpful and controversial, take a Colbert or Swiftian tact and challenge disinterest and/or cynicism with comments like, "well, I kinda think you should help out, [insert colleague's name here]. Can I ask you a question? Why exactly do you hate poor people?" I can't stress enough how important it is to have a good relationship with your colleague/target as well as fantastic communication/backpeddling skills if you're going to try this out. Make sure they have a sense of humour, get irony and, most importantly, make sure you have a sense of humour, too!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Smells like Community Spirit

Community has a smell. At least, I think it smells.

It's the smell of chlorine, sweat, deep fryers, wet cement, and Zamboni exhaust. You need go no further than your local community center to experience this orchestra of odors. Until recently, I associated the smell of community centers with high school gym trips to the weight room. High school gym class of course brings back feelings of inferiority, mean girls, and low confidence so it's no surprise that the smell of "community" once regurgitated bad memories in my psyche. That association has begun to change since I decided to join the community gym. I joined hours before the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve so I like to think the act is excused from the usual list of New Year's resolutions. I joined because I needed an outlet to let off steam and running out my angst on a tread mill sounded like a good idea.

The gym and weight room at Britannia Community Center over look a pool. You can walk, run, row and step to the sight of people swimming. Some people are just learning to swim, kids and adults alike. There's this one swimmer who I call the "fish." He's a regular. He wears flippers on his feet and can swim an entire length without coming up for water once. There are always men and women soaking in the hut tub and you often see the glitter of gold around their necks. It's always great to watch a mum take a toddler in her arms and wade through the shallow pool. Personally, I enjoy watching the swimmers who take their time gliding through the water, swimming their lengths slowly. I imagine they are nursing a sports injury. Maybe they have a bad knee and as part of their physio, they swim because it's easy on the bones and exercises the body. They seem so graceful.

I haven't tried the pool yet. I'm still getting used to the tread mill and the elliptical machine. And there's nothing graceful about the sight of me working off my angst. Although I still have to force myself through the doors, I've come to like the smell that greets me. It may smell like chlorine and sweat and ice but it's also the smell of people coming together for their own, private reason - be it health, angst, therapy, or a sense of grace.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Literary Community Pushes Borders

This week, our literary community, otherwise known as Book Club has been gearing into overdrive to finish the latest reading item. This month we're reading "What is the What". It's a statement, I've been told - not a question. Written by Dave Eggers of "Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius" fame, it tells the story of a young Sudanese boy named Achak, aka Valentino, aka Dominic, aka Africa, who braves the perils of Arab militias, Karthoum military troops, hunger, child soldiery and American petty criminals to survive to live another day. I liked the book, which was a treat.

I haven't liked all the books we've been exposed to in book club (among them "Late Nights on Air", "The Master and the Marguerita", and "Immortality"). Not my style I thought. I steeled myself to be one of the first to drop out. How could you stay in a Book Club whereby most of the books you were reading weren't particularly enjoyable to read.

That's when I realized the beauty of our little literary community. Part of the strength of Book Club was its ability to expose its adherents to a range of books they'd otherwise never read. So there I was slogging trough immortality, cup of joe in one hand, as I felt my borders (which admittably can be quite narrow at certain points) expanding quicker than Napoleonic France. Tis the beauty of our dear Book Club.

Book Club is our own little community. And isn't that what some of the most interesting communties do? While they are always thought to be bound togeather by common interests, some of the best ones are also connected by a safe space to celebrate and be exposed to different ideas. Ideas that, like cough syrup, might not always be good going down initally, are inevitably great in the long run.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Gumboot Community (begrudgingly) Expands

Hi there readers!*

It's my pleasure to introduce you to a couple of new contributors to The Weekly Gumboot.

The first, really, needs no introduction. Her name is Ms. Theodora Lamb (or 'Theo', if she likes you). Holding the editorial staff to task (again, my most sincere and profound apologies for not mentioning the positive contributions of people who stand around - or direct traffic - as we push cars towards community) and being generally and wonderfully dramatic, are only a few of the saucy attributes that our red-headed friend brings to the staff at The Weekly Gumboot. Theo even owns gumboots, and has been wearing 'em proudly way, way, way before they were cool enough to be sold in Kits.

Second on the list is Stewart Burgess. He needs an introduction, as I'm not clever enough to do him justice. "Stewart Burgess" might even be an alias. So, I'll let him do the talking. Or, better yet, writing. Below is a totally out-of-context excerpt from Stew's reply following my invitation for him to join the Gumboot's writing and ideas team. As you will undoubtedly see, there's no one-dimensional, dogmatic, top-down editorial line here at Vancouver's coolest up-and-coming blog. No, my friends. There are at least two sides of this story.


"I'd love to contribute the occasional article to your on-line publication.

However, I am not entirely supportive of the merville-centric nature of your efforts (got to have a little hometown pride; perhaps it could be called 'Coffins or Kids?' or 'One homeless man's guide to warm-air grates' as I am from Victoria). At the same time I do appreciate the plurality inherent to 'the gumboot'. Equally at home on the farm or the club --at least in Vancouver--these versatile devices have garnered much attention recently (witness the plethora of gumboot-only stores on 4th and Broadway!). I myself own a handsome pair of blue and white yatching boots, which I am told are a cut above the common gumboot, despite the seemingly exact similarities in construction technique and material choice. They are now at your service. Well, the owner is as I am not sure you'd want to share in the intimacies of my various foot fungi/sweat patterns.

Let me know what I need to do."

Stew. You just need to keep being awesome. We're lucky to have you aboard and look forward to further anti-Merville, pro-community and lukewarm-gumboot espousals and commentary. Thanks for the memories.

A tres bientot.


*(my overly-supportive parents and my friend "The Professor"* who lives at the Commercial/Broadway Sky Train station and yells angrily at people who are checking their email at Blenz or browsing their blackberry in the B-Line bus line up until they let him skim the most recent Gumboot entry).