Thursday, February 26, 2009

Food Sharing and Potlucks: Interactive Approach

I've been pondering getting one of these started. I love to cook and eat. However, one of the things I've discovered is that as I get older, I'm increasingly locked into a certain style of cooking. I cook rich predominately French, Italian, Yankee homestyle with a some Japanese and Thai recipes thrown in for good order.

However, there are many other culinary styles that I've rarely experimented with, and many beyond these that I probably have never even considered/been conscience of. I'd like to poll the gumboot community as to what types of foods they prepare. To take the poll - just head to the poll to the right of this post on the sidebar.

I'd also be interested in getting everyone's thoughts regarding food sharing programs and whether a) they exist in the city AND b) you think they're a good idea.

And for those of you who'll read this post and not poll I say: common it just takes a minute...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hypocrisy and Community - "How about, nobody throws stones?"

Chris Rock provides amazing, socially relevant insight into American race-relations, dating and what it means to have social intelligence and a good network.

Rick Mercer gets Canadiana better than anyone out there.

When it comes to influencing Americans under 30, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are two of the most important voices concerning global events.

And then there's Demetri Martin. His policy is that nobody should throw stones.

A law-student-on-scholarship turned comedian, Demetri Martin got big after his faux-hipster segment, Trendspotting, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He's toured around the world, is a hit on YouTube and recently got his own show, Important Things. Critics are calling it "hit and miss" and, you know what, that's kinda how the guy rolls. Mostly, he's brilliant and quirky and pretty darn hilarious.

Demetri bases a lot of his comedy on the collection of interesting and funny data, consistently referred to as "findings."* He also has an important message for all the communities out there. And here it is:

"There's a saying," says Demetri, "that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Okay. How about, nobody should throw stones? That's crappy behaviour!" In fact, his policy** is no stone throwing regardless of housing situation.

What lessons can we learn from this? And what does stone throwing have to do with our community?

1. Listen to funny people. They're wiser than you think. Also, laughter totally reduces stress.

2. Throwing things (actual stones, words, bullets, tired provincial election rhetoric, urban chickens) at each other is no way to build community. Rather than throwing things, how about using ideas to build something (editor's note: like, I'm not entirely sure what a community-based project that was built using bullets looks like, I just know it's a way better idea than their typical, tragic use).

3. What's worse, indicting someone for something of which you're also guilty (ie. the glass house paradigm) or smugly pointing out someone's shortcomings (ie. you don't have a glass house, and you enjoy chucking rocks at people with whom you disagree)? When we bring each other up, instead of putting people down, everyone becomes better. And it's a beautiful thing.

4. Speaking of things, no great thing in history has ever been achieved by just one person. Whether its cooling this poor, hot planet of ours, taking a stand against gang violence, or bridging that yawning gap between Commercial Drive and Hummer owners, we need to do it as a team. As one, big, sexy, amazing community.

5. Think community-based solutions are complicated? Well, stop throwing stones for a day and see how it feels. You know, whether literal or otherwise, it hurts when you get hit with stones.

So there it is. And the next time you're thinking about throwing a stone, try building something instead. Because, really, that's what stones are for.

Thanks. Now go out there and have some fun!


*not pieces of jewelry, but real data findings...just in case you were curious.
**there is an exception to his policy (basically, if you are trapped in a glass house, it's okay to throw stones, which is really funny and you should totally check out:

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Tupperware tales. Are you a part of the movement?

There’s an underground community lurking in the shadows of Commercial Drive … and there might possibly even be one in your neighborhood as well. Kits, Surrey, Coquitlam … yes, this could very well include you. No, I’m not talking about gangs, drugs, or black-market gambling (although these very well could be affecting your neighborhood). I’m talking about something far more pervasive. More lasting. More contained. I’m talking about Tupperware, folks. Yep, that pliable, attractive, and very long-lasting synthetic polymer we’ve all grown to love and celebrate (for those of you who have never been to a Tupperware party … well, you were probably born after the 1970s. But you get the picture).

What was once a product that was primarily used to bring food made in the home out is now being used to bring food made outside the house in. And it’s a great, community minded, environmentally friendly thing, friends.

On the Drive, there’s a lovely little sushi joint I often frequent. Bringing sushi home in those horrendous plastic and Styrofoam containers was too much for my poor, sustainable mind to take. And an easy solution, so that I could continue to feed my sushi dependency and quell my urge to be friendly to our little planet, was to bring my own containers. Until a few weeks ago, I thought I was alone in this practice. I felt like an outsider. Like I should apologize for disrupting the to-go-sushi-making-flow. And then … I found another. Our eyes connected across the restaurant as we both held our Tupperware, proud and prepped to confront the plastic-loving staff. A sigh of relief, a smile and a nod.

So to all of you Tupperware-yielding restaurant goers out there … you are not alone. There are many of us out there, and with time and persistence, our practice may very well become the norm.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Opening Doors to Coolness

Open doors invite conversation and community. Closed doors don't. But here's a way to build community and keep cool this summer.

This summer, I'm anticipating our little apartment turning into a sauna. Our apartment won't be the only one in the building like this. So how do we avoid baking like turkeys in an oven? We could buy fans and leave them running day and night, running up the electric bills. Or we could go out and buy (go consumerism!) a fancy air conditioning machine and deal with the heat LA style. Or we could just suck it up and recognize in the summer, its supposed to be hot.

Well, how about secret door number four (pun intended). Open up your doors and bang on the doors of your neighbours and see if they will open there's when they are around. Suddenly a jet of air flows through the building. Suddenly you have an apartment of open doors (infinitely more neighbourly). You've also got the cool and warm air are moving through the building, sans electricity. You're using physics as your own personal air conditioner. Go physics!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

John's Great Idea for 2009!

Hi there friends.

A few points of reference before things get started. First, some of you (ie. Stewart) know that this is not necessarily a "new" idea of mine. I've been espousing it for at least six months, but, well, now that I live in Vancouver it just seems that, with the people and resources around me, we can actually make it happen. Second, the idea was inspired by one of my former students at Camosun College, Jordan Stout, so if it takes off I just want to say that he deserves the credit. And if you think it's stupid, I just want to say that he deserves the credit...

Here's the idea:

We've all seen and, perhaps, used exercise bikes. Usually in gyms. Sometimes at home. And some of us have witnessed the BC Clettes perform to music powered by one of their members pedaling away on a stationary bike. And that's the idea. Power-generating stationary bicycles.

And it gets better. Bigger, even. The idea is to place hundreds - maybe even thousands - of these stationary bikes all around the Lower Mainland and connect them to the power grid. By riding the bikes, people would be able to produce clean energy for their communities. And they will also get exercise as well as promote healthy living by being "on the street" role models for physical fitness. Here's the kicker: after pedaling for a certain amount of time, the bike shoots out a loonie or toonie! Whether you're a homeless person, investment banker high on caffeine who doesn't want to break a hundred dollar bill, or a kid needing some cash for a bus-ride home, could make money by producing power for the city of Vancouver. Finally, think about the tourist buy-in! Many globetrotters will get their photos taking pedaling away on a bike that provides energy for one of the world's most unique - and greenest - cities.

So there it is. A great idea for 2009. But, Gumboot enthusiasts, I can't do it alone. Here is what I will need from you:

An engineer: I'm an historian and a piratologist who can't do math. I imagine that linking stationary bicycles to the city's power grid will involve some math and, perhaps, also science.

Political buy-in: Gregor? Geoff? Andrea? Are you there? Look, Gregor, I know you like riding your bike because of the above-mentioned environmental and health reasons. Now. Just imagine if everyone in Vancouver got a chance to be as active as you while literally powering our city forward. It's a beautiful, um, vision...

Funding: Preliminary "findings" show that this might be, in the short-term, a rather costly project. So, if anyone is interested in brainstorming some fundraising ideas (bake sale, ponzi scheme, dodgeball tournament), please let me know. In the long term, though, I think that it will be affordable to manage. So, let's set up a few bikes in the downtown area, hook up some fuel cells to store the engery and power some street lights!

Word of mouth:
The most important part of any good idea. Spreading the word, generating interest and transforming the concept of power-producing exercise bikes strategically placed around the Lower Mainland from, well, one person's idea to a meaningful collaborative project that will change the world for the better. C'mon. It's amazing and hilarious in its simplicity.

And that's my idea. What's yours?


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Corroding our Community from Within

There's a business out there that makes a living by corroding community. They've created a system through which the most vulnerable citizens pay exorbitant amounts of money for simple financial services.

You need only wander along Hastings Street any Welfare Wednesday to see whom I'm talking about. Below the yellow and red Money Mart sign, a long snake of desperate looking people line up waiting to cash their government assistance cheques and disability cheques for cash. "Who uses Money Mart? It could be you," says a banner hanging lazily above the non-descript store front. I certainly hope not.

As I wander by towards work, a man bombs by me. He navigates the street traffic like frogger. A car narrowly misses him as he clambers up the curb and into line. You can almost see the thought bubble above his rapidly moving heard, "almost there, almost turned this cheque in cash that I can spend on drugs/alcohol/other excessive substances".

The fact that Money Mart will charge him 3% on his cheque in addition to a cheque cashing fee will probably not bother him. He has more important things to worry about. However, if you do the math, Money Mart walks away with over $20 for each $600 BC government disability cheque it takes. That's a meal and half right there. During the early 20th century, there was a name for businesses which made money of the desperation of the community/nation. They were called profiteers.

For the working poor the Money Mart situation is even worse. For many, the quick payday loans are their last possible way of subsidizing life in between paycheques. Much like credit cards, people fall into a pattern of buying on credit. But unlike credit card companies which will run you a measly 16% interest (Note to reader, I do not REALLY think 16% is measly), Money Mart is alledged to charge interest (disguised as fees), which range from 60% up to 1000% (no that's not a typo - one thousand percent) of the customer's next paycheque. Don't believe it - check out the class action law suit already filed in Ontario.

So what does this have to do with community? Well to start, with 300 stores coast to coast, the Money Mart financial juggernaut is part of just about any urban community. We even have one on the Drive. Secondly, they are used by many of our most vulnerable citizens as the only way to live. Many people don't understand the effects of debt and how dangerous it can be. Money Mart preys on this ignorance like a parasite on an unsuspecting host.

Bankruptcy, depression, frustration, and financial ruin often follow. Harmonious community life, be it among family, friends, neighbours, or community members is difficult in such circumstances.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities – Health and Wellness

In the last instalment of this series we learned about the democratic nature of pirate communities. Over 100 years before the French Revolution, democracy existed aboard pirate ships, as represented by the written and signed Articles of Piracy, which demonstrated the crew’s power, as opposed to just the Captain’s. Part of those democratic principles included health care and workplace compensation, both of which, once again, existed on pirate ships long before they did anywhere else in the world.

According to Nigel Cawthorne’s A History of Pirates, when it came to healthy living, “many Royal Navy seamen considered life on board a pirate ship heaven compared with conditions they experienced on board the ships of His Majesty.” There was a greater life expectancy than in the navy and, while a pirate could very well depart this life at the end of a rope, he was allowed to leave the ship when he pleased and, if he chose to go ashore, could, as Cawthorne says, “at least look forward to a few years of freedom and high living.”

Life aboard a pirate ship was not only better lifestyle-wise than that with the Royal Navy or Merchant Marine, but pirates were actually given health benefits in the form of workplace compensation. Specifically, they went into battle knowing that, should they lose a limb or have their eye poked/shot out, they would be financially compensated for such loses. Here is a chart that reflects the actual payment as discussed by David Cordingly in Under the Black Flag:



Right Arm

600 pieces of eight

Left Arm

500 pieces of eight

Right Leg

500 pieces of eight

Left Leg

400 pieces of eight

Eye or Finger

100 pieces of eight

Here were the earliest forms of non-governmental (ie. the military), workplace compensation. Further, the ship’s – or pirate company’s – surgeon was the highest paid member of the crew (fun pirate fact: only carpenters, shipwrights and surgeons earned a salary). Aaron Smith, a surgeon working on a merchant vessel, was captured by Cuban pirates in 1822. He was seen as so valuable that, in spite of speaking no Spanish or being trained in their seafaring tactics, the pirates employed him as a doctor and sail-maker – pirates, unlike the Government of Canada, clearly recognized the transferable skills and qualifications of this foreign trained professional. So, aside from seeing the value in medical professionals (instead of, say, lawyers or investment bankers), what else can we learn from pirate communities with it comes to health and wellness? Here are some key points:

Healthy living begins with a Healthy Community: how did these compensated pirates use their money? Well, if they went to shore they invariably spent it in the taverns and brothels of Tortuga or other pirate haunts on isle of Hispaniola or elsewhere in the sunny Caribbean, hopefully, they built a relationship with local communities (should we start a thread on local food?!). Like many of us today, pirates suffered from the ill-effects of instant gratification. They would spend their compensation without thinking of a long-term strategy; however, if a certain amount of time, effort and resources were exchanged by pirate companies and coastal communities, well, then a system of security and care would be formed. Even today the coastal communities in Somalia rarely cooperate with the authorities and provide shelter, supplies and medical attention to pirates-in-need. As it was 300 years ago, when pirates take care of their communities, their communities take care of them. Organized, democratic, healthily-insured, and possessing a sense of community: wow, Barack Obama could take a page out of their playbook!

Health and Wellness in the Workplace: each year the Canadian economy loses upwards of $30 billion because of workplace stress. Our country’s workers are asked to do too much too quickly in an effort to complete projects within razor-thin profit margins. And if you’re an organization that recognizes the relationship between happy, healthy workers and profitability, well, then your organization is going places. Not unlike a pirate ship! If not, hey, you can learn from the pirates. Today, over one million people in Canada’s workforce suffer from some kind of mental illness brought on by stress. In the seventeenth century, life aboard a pirate ship was easier and more efficient than aboard a ship in the Merchant Marine. There were more pirates (typically as many as 80) than merchant sailors (sometimes as few as 12), so buccaneers would actually be more productive and get to work less. How was this possible? Well, the booty, plunder and earnings of the pirates was divided democratically amongst the crew, whereas merchant sailors saw the profits from their hauls go to wealthy businessmen in London, Boston and New York. This is why, argues Cordingly, so many merchant sailors joined pirate crews after their vessels were attacked and raided. Reasonable time to complete less work, more loot and health insurance?! Why wouldn’t they sign up?!

Health Insurance is different from Wellness: pirates, like some of you reading this blog, are a little dirty. Now. There are levels of dirtiness, obviously. For pirates, they got filthy in a venereal sense. In fact, due to syphilis rates that rival modern day Whistler night clubs or Axe body spray commercials, pirates would usually head directly to the medicine chest, not the armoury or treasure-hold, when they ransacked a ship. It was itch-curing mercury compounds, not gold, rum or gunpowder that was the sought-after treasure for so many of these scallywags. Just as with the these wench-pillaging buccaneers, today many of us look to the healthcare system to cure illnesses brought on by excessive smoking, drinking, sitting, eating, stressing, and unprotected sexing. While pirates, like many of us, have access to health care, we must remember that such a system is only part of what it takes to be healthy. Really, it takes a well-rounded, holistic approach that involves diet, exercise, work-life-balance, and happiness. So, the next time you’re thinking about swilling some rum, grabbin’ yer cutlass and hittin’ the port with yer mates, ask yourself if these actions will lead to you being a drain on an over-taxed system that is set up to help people who actually need it. Not over-indulging pirates.

At this point, I’ll add a disclaimer and remind you, the readers, of the context in which these tales took place. Look. Life on board a pirate ship in the eighteenth-century was, yes, better than life in the Royal Navy. Keep in mind, though, that your food still had maggots in it and that you usually slept in a damp room bellow decks and fell asleep beneath a wet, mouldy blanket. So, yes, it was better, but let us keep in mind the standards by which these pirate-ship-havens were measured. Also, just as governments tax their citizens, pirates taxed (and still tax) communities. The Canadian government, when taxing, doesn’t tend to set things on fire, though…

Yes. Subtle differences abide. Long story short, work less and be well…like a pirate!

Thar be it, mateys and matettes! Have yourselves a grand day on the high seas.

- Sir John the Pirate Piratologist

Friday, February 13, 2009

From Cowmoonity to Cluck-unity

K-Ho, you’ve certainly illuminated the many ways in which cows exemplify community. Democracy, Acceptance, Cowmunication. Key tenents to any thriving cowmoonity. On top of all this – cows are pretty likeable. I mean, what’s not to like? They’re pretty chill animals, harmless, and useful (until those evil crows – who knew one letter could make such a difference?). They give us milk and meat, cornerstones of a healthy diet. In fact, I wouldn’t mind having one myself. Problem is – I live in Vancouver. In an apartment. Seeing as my landlords aren’t too keen on the idea of a cat, I very much doubt they’d be up to the idea of a cow.

So now what? Give up my dream of alternative barnyard companionship and a readily available protein source? Of course not! The answer lies, my friends, in our favorite fowly friend: the chicken. Ah, gallus domesticus. How have you gotten such a bad rap? A quick thesaurus search brings up synonyms to your given name like ‘cowardly’, and ‘scared’. Not to mention the foul use of the venerable fowl terms cock and chick. But I digress. It seems, chickens, your time has come.

The recent increased attention to the importance of eating locally has paved the way for you, fowly friends. You see, unlike cows, you can live in the city. And not just one of you – but a few of you. Which is important, because as we all know, chickens are community-minded birds and live together as a flock. The urban chicken movement is growing, and the more I read about it, the more I’m on board.

There are numerous health, environmental, and humanitarian reasons for raising your own chickens, including less food miles, assurances of no hormones or antibiotics, and decent living conditions for the chickens.

I also think having backyard chickens can really serve to create a sense of community. Too often we’re unaware of where our food comes from. Growing up in the suburbs (see previous post on suburbia for a scathing critique), I’m ashamed to say I had no knowledge of where my food actually came from beyond the doors of the local Safeway. Growing your own vegetables and fruits is one way to get in touch with the land, but keeping animals, including chickens, is an important means of feeling like you’re really a part of your greater community, with a sense of responsibility and humility to the land and the creatures on it. One of my favorite quotes states, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect” (Chief Seattle). Allowing a greater connection between the sources of our sustenance and ourselves can only bind us closer within this web we are all a part of.

In mid-January, Vancouver’s food policy council (an independent body that advises city councillors on food and agricultural issues) voted to formally float the issue of allowing Vancouver residents to keep chickens. For more information on this, check out: And hey, next time you’re enjoying a (hopefully free-range) chicken dinner, I encourage you to think about where it came from.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Classroom Community - times be changin'

First thing's first. It's called "A Vision of Students Today." Have fun with it! I'll see you in 4 minutes and 44 seconds. Here's the video.

Did you have fun? Let's move on...

Education (elementary, secondary, post-secondary) is terribly hierarchical. Authoritarian, even. The teacher is the expert. The student is the learner. At universities across Canada, professors orate their ideas and "findings" to hundreds - maybe thousands - of students who cram into an annonymous lecture hall and try to absorb the distant material. These classrooms are pretty one-dimensional and, more importantly, a lot of 'em are grossly out of date.

Clearly, there are exceptions. Because, clearly, the world is changing. More likely, it's changed...exponentially. There's just too much information out there for any one idea to be tackled by anything less than a team - that's why The Gumboot is getting so much critical acclaim; it's the collaboration, baby!

Sorry, teachers, but when it comes to our classrooms, we're not always the experts. Especially when it comes to technology and how we use a medium like the internet to access information. Navigating its system of pipes and tubes, students can use the web to find a litany of supportive, contrasting, useless, and hilarious sources on any given topic. The more we educators pretend to know it all, the more our students will Facebook and Twitter their way into unproductive apathy. So, we need to include them in the lesson.

Here's my modest proposal. Let's change things in the classroom. In collaboration as students and teachers, let's make a transition from hierarchy to community. Many post-secondary educators out there know a lot about a little, which is great and amazing and important for students to learn. And many students know a little about a lot. And the classroom community can be the vehicle for, among other things, these ideas from everywhere to come together under knowledgeable guidance. Who knows, with the right discussion, a classroom might even turn into a venue for positive social change.

Interested in making your classroom a community? Here are some strategies to try out:

Edutainment: the concept of edutainment combines performance with learning; basically, make the classroom a fun place to be. Use YouTube. Play games. Talk about pirates. And, most importantly, when you link learning outcomes to enjoyable activities, the result(s) are those wonderful 'ah-ha!' and epiphany moments that make teaching such a rewarding experience.

Use technology: sorry, Luddites, but at least part of your curriculum needs to be online (I mean, let's put it in context...grade ones probably aren't going to be blogging...I mean, this isn't Ender's Game, right?). Whether we like it or not, Web 2.0 has allowed a whole generation of learners to personalize their consumer experience. Education is a product our students consume, so why wouldn't they expect one of their most expensive purchases (or their parents purchases) to have the option of being tailored to their needs. Whether it's downloadable lecture notes, an online forum for discussion or a wiki, having technology supplement a comprehensive academic experience will provide a personalized touch that so many students want...and, arguably, need.

Be inclusive:
ask them questions. And don't stop there. When your next lesson comes up, show your class that you've taken their feedback and used it to make your material and their experience even better. Empowering young people to take on creative leadership roles can be risky, sure. But when students are set up for success by their teacher and then their plan comes together - wow - it's a beautiful thing. The stuff of inspiration, really.

Let them collaborate: no great thing in the history of humanity was every done by just one person. So, from team-based projects to sharing notes (yes, even on Facebook), let students work together to solve problems. Better yet, encourage them to do so.

Make it relevant:
From "machine to community" and "hierarchy to network" - according to Goran Carstedt, this is where the real-world of the workplace is heading. The material (ie. the sociology of peasant uprisings in Early Modern France) might not be directly related to life, but the transferable skills sure will. So why not make education as relevant (with content, form and style) as possible? More than ever, employers are accepting that, when it comes to concepts like social media and interdisciplinary, cross-cultural collaboration the boss, not the analyst/intern/consultant/researcher, will be the student. It was two twentysomethings who brainstormed Best Buy's internal wiki, not the CEO or VP of HR. Having a meaningful, inclusive conversation in the classroom as well as a lecture is a great place to start.

Because if we keep up with our expert orations and do not empower students to engage our ideas with theirs, well, we just might, as Sir Ken Robinson says, kill creativity for good. So, whether you teach kids or adults to dance, do math or save the world using business, try something new in your classroom. You might fail. And that's okay.

And, hey, if writing this was a huge mistake, well, that's okay. Because I'm not afraid to make mistakes. Learning from them makes us all better.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Hummer Master and the Sangria

Let's paint a picture in your mind.

It's a sunny day on Commercial Drive. People lazily mill about the streets in the afternoon sun. Across from Grandview Park, there we sit on the patio of Havana, a Cuban inspired local restaurant. We drink red wine sangria and watch in an absent minded fashion as "Cloudman", one of the Drive's many resident eccentrics, twirls his stick (poorly) in a acid-hazed hangover.

We are dressed in jeans and loose checkered shirts. Our sandals are a raggedy two years old. The height of informal relaxed fashion. I look like Huck Finn - Vancouver Redux. Everyone else that we see seems the same way. Tinny Latin music echoes over the din of the crowd. At least it does until its overwhelmed by the distant bass thump of a JT (Justin T) spewing Hummer.

As the Hummer drives down the street past us, we get a glimpse of a white urban city dweller. Dressed in startched white collar, sporty blue blazer and fancy new Yaletownesque shades. Beside him sits his plush bimboesque barbie, who curls her hair absent mindedly.

As the Hummer spews its fumes the Drive rises up. The finger, the downturned thumb are displayed. Others catcall. Then there are the yellers - I don't need to repeat what they say - use your imagination. Cloudman continues to twirl his stick absentmindedly.

And then the Hummer driver is gone.

He's just gotten a taste of exclusivity (if he noticed).

We noticed. It seems that the Drivers are trying to say something to the interloper. They say that he's part of the undesired group that we don't really want in our community. Take your gaz-guzzler away from here and don't come back.

Was it his disregard for the environment that inspired such wrath? Or his materialism? The symbol of the military-industrial complex he brought to ground zero for Vancouver Peacenicks? Or maybe we were all jealous of his "success"?

More importantly, what law did he break to justify our rudeness? And what makes the Drive any different (or better?) from the most exclusive golf club in the country?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Where's the Square?


Any healthy city has got to have one decent main square. I don’t care how many parks, pedestrian walk ways, sea walls, bike paths Vancouver boasts, a city without a main square lacks a solid pulse; it lacks an incubator for community. We do meeting up online really, really, well. But right now, we kinda lack the physical spaces to do it in real life.

Sure, Vancouver has plenty of ‘squares’, but it lacks a grand open space for us to gather. Most Canadian cities don't possess the typical main square that European urban centres do. It’s not our fault, we just kinda sucked at urban planning back in the day. But let’s look to the future not to the past, ok?

Vancouver cries out for an urban space with a fountain and some naked angels spouting water, and some caf├ęs with cloth umbrellas and wicker furniture. Or at the very least a central area so that we can hold free concerts, stage some demos, or just sip a coffee which isn’t ‘to go’ and watch the world go by.

Yes, we have Victory “Square”, Granville “Square” and Robson “Square” but does ANY one acutally go there? The closest thing Vancouver has to truly filling the role of square isn’t even a square, but STEPS! Hey, I like the VAG steps, don’t get me wrong. When the sun is shining I sit on them on my lunch break and take in the crazy lady who gyrates to a stereo on wheels or admire how the side walk artist uses spray paint in novel ways. That said, Vancouver is really missing the type of “grand public square” that could – and should - act as a centre point for civic life in the city. I mean, the poor break dancers need more room to do the worm than an expanded side-walk! Even arch nemesis Toronto has in recent years created a grand central square at Dundas and Yonge. It has funky fountains, slick paving stones, some stylized furniture and plenty of space to do whatever. While the visual onslaught of electronic billboards and condo towers make it a bit too, um, Blade-Runnery for my old-world sensibilities, T.O. deserves points for effort in recognizing that its downtown desperately needed a square.

And Toronto's square has succeeded in getting people to gather and take a time-out in a very commercial, hectic, urban core. So Vancouver! Catch up! Use some land slated for a few condo towers to make a square. Communities will thank you for it.

Check out this list of urban squares around the world, for some inspiration. Take your pick. These cities do some neat stuff with squares. Tehran's is a little weird, in my view. Maybe we shouldn't model ours on that one. But that's also open to debate.


The fireworks festival was great for creating community. Masses of people gathering along Vancouver’s shores and exclaiming “Ooooo” and “Aaaaaa” = bonding, plain and simple. It was also a very expensive and somewhat environmentally detrimental way to get us all together. Still, the summer and our community will be worse off now that the festival has been canned. Fireworks, beyond being really cool, tapped into our desire to gather and share in something collectively. A square could help fill that need on a daily basis without millions of dollars going up in smoke. Sure the fireworks created more business for the downtown core. But they also created a lot of garbage and car traffic. So, if we could just repeal some of the most draconian fireworks legislation in the world, build us a square, we’d not only have ourselves a kickin’ place to meet up, display our talents and have our voices heard, we'd also have a great spot for lighting off some rockets come New Year's!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

haiku of the week

cows on a grey bus
we music community
in clever gumboots

- a haiku by John Horn that
hopefully summarizes a wordy
week from the team at The
Weekly Gumboot


Recently, I was out for a leisurely jog on a crisp Saturday afternoon around the outskirts of Victoria, when I happened by a farm...a very large farm with a very large red barn.  As I bounced past the big red building, I started thinking about the various kinds of animals that might live on this farm.  Then, being somewhat ADD with respect to my thought process, I also started to think about community, particularly some of the ideas that have been put forward on this masterpiece of a blog.  Next, taking my thought process to an even stranger and more ADD place, I started thinking about animals and community.  More specifically, I asked myself, "is there anything that we can learn about communities from animals...from farm animals?"  I thought about this as I continued to jog along (now well beyond the farm's outer boundary), and I came to the conclusion that, yes, in fact, it just might be possible...

Let us take cows for example.  Upon closer analysis of the everyday activities and interactions of cows, it seems that we can actually learn a few key lessons about community (quel surprise!).  Allow me to explain further via the following points...

1) Power in numbers - let's think about the power of one cow vs. power of many cows (e.g. should that cow/those cows choose to chase someone or something, should that cow/those cows attempt to push over a fence, should that cow/those cows choose to mow-down a field of grass, etc.etc.).  Clearly, cows "get it" - they have greater influence on their surroundings when more of them band together to achieve a cause.  Think about it.

2) Communication - ever wonder why, when one cow starts to moo, the rest also seem to have something to "moo" (like "say" but for cows)?  Believe it or not, it is because cows are communication specialists.  We may not understand what they are "saying" to one another, but we can clearly see that they work hard to discuss something of importance to the entire group (perhaps best location to seek out clean H20, most promising grazing patch for the day, etc.?).  Most importantly, the group usually does not make a move once every cow has had at least one chance to "moo" its view.  

3) Lookin' out for one another - sometimes, when cows are hangin' out in the fields, they swat flies away from their cow friends with their tails.  There appears to be an underlying understanding that, if one cow sees a fly that is out of reach for their cow friend, that cow will take care of the situation on behalf of its buddy.

4) Accepting of new things - when you approach a cow and it looks at you, it does so in a very non-judgmental way.  Even if they are a bit frightened of the different-looking stranger standing in from of them (perhaps they even balk a little...), eventually they will come closer for a look and maybe even to hang out a little.  After a while, the initial fright turns into a curiosity, and finally, an acceptance.  Way to embrace difference, cows.

There is probably much more that we can learn from cows, and perhaps as well from other creatures.  For the purposes of this thought experiment, though, we can clearly see that cows seem to know what's up when it comes to community.  They get each others' backs, they can clearly communicate with one another, and they know how to effectively incite change.  Not bad, cows.  Not bad at all.  Turns out, "ideas from everywhere" can even include the farmyard.  Mooooo!


Friday, February 6, 2009

Bringing Music Back: From Me to We

The brilliant author and neurologist Oliver Sacks has recently written a book on the ways in which music can move us, change us, and bring us together. Musicophilia ( describes the peculiar, the miraculous, and the poignant ways in which music is integrally woven into the fabric of our lives, our memories, and our very neurological compositions. He tells tales of individuals afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, who, after months or years of confusion and lost identity, respond to music in beautiful and remarkable ways: smiling, keeping time, and regaining a sense of lucidity that sometimes lasts for hours. He tells of instances where music has animated those with Parkinson’s, and given those who have suffered from strokes the ability to speak.

Music, it seems, has presented a pathway to these individuals: a pathway to their memories, their souls, and their very sense of self. The ability for music to stir in people emotions, memories, and a sense of wellbeing is truly amazing, and may be one of the reasons music has a way of bringing people together – of developing community.

I recently went to a CBC Book Club recording, where the author in the hot seat was renowned musician and conductor Rob Kapilow (who coincidently, is chummy with Oliver Sacks – oh, to be in that circle of literary brilliance!). Mr. Kapilow (, in ‘All You Have to Do Is Listen – Music from the Inside Out’, describes the way music moves us at this very instinctual level. We don’t need to be musicologists* to have this visceral reaction, to feel what the music is telling us, to respond to it in real and beautiful ways. Music can bring us together, tie us to a certain cause or moment, and make us feel like we’re a part of something larger than we are.

It seems, somehow, that this has been lost. I blame it on the iPod. Before the invention of the phonograph in the late 1800s and the subsequent explosion of recording devices and recorded sound, people had to go to a concert hall to listen to a musical performance. It was something that was necessarily shared – as Rob Kapilow likes to put it, it was a “we” experience. Think about how we listen to music now: through our Ipod headphones. There is nothing communal about it – it’s turned into a resounding “me” experience.

Music is made to be shared. When we hear music, we think back to the moments they’re embedded in. Music and the people and places we love are – or should be – integrally connected.
So my call out to you all is to celebrate music with those around you. Go to more concerts. Rent out a Karaoke room and sing your heart out with your friends (and some beer). Take a salsa class. Share the Music, because that’s how it was meant to be experienced.

*Yes, yes, I know this is probably not a “real” word. Am I OK with this? SURE AM! I suppose I would consider myself a ‘functional linguist’, and am at ease with taking creative liberties. Words have come in to our vernacular over the years because they’ve become socially relevant (I love how ‘facebook’ has now become a verb). Down with the Ivory Tower of Linguistic Supremacy! Give words back to the people, I say! (A linguistical liberal commie? Some might say …). And if you have a problem with this, you can Facebook me …

Expanding the Grey

Diversity is underappreciated.

What’s that you say, but we love diversity. Heck, we’re lowermainlanders, (those of us not off plundering the rich bounty of the sea anyway) we’re all about that stuff.

On the surface that may be true, we celebrate lunar New Year alongside Robbie Burns day. We appreciate the different smells, flavours, and the rich patina of a multicultural landscape. What we don’t seem to truly appreciate is mental diversity.

It’s not that we don’t recognize the breadth in our varying capacity to learn, cope, empathize, love, and generally thrive amongst our peers. The issue is that we have created a divisive atmosphere focused on the extreme. We built a black and white landscape where we’re either gifted or handicapped, and thus celebrated or medicated.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, partially because of the rough waters in the k-12 community.

The B.C. Labour Relations Board has ruled that not administering FSA tests amounts to illegal job action, yet a substantial number of parents and teachers oppose the tests. Part of the problem is the tests don’t properly account for diversity in the classroom.

We’re not just talking social diversity here, but the breadth in maturity and capacity to thrive in a traditional learning environment.

There’s a whole grey area that comes into play between gifted learners and those with significant challenges. Our resources go to coping as best we can with those on either end of the spectrum, while to a great extent those in the great gray are ignored.

This mirrors life outside the k-12 community as well. In order to get support people are pushed to align themselves with one extreme or another.

There aren’t a lot of groups or programs dedicated to helping average people succeed, which is leading to the diagnosis and treatment (which all too often means medication) of ever slighter variances from the norm.

Feel awkward in social settings?
It’s not that while being told you were a unique snowflake during your formative years you found yourself amid a sea of indistinguishable yet equally unique snowflakes. Find the right diagnosis and you can be medicated for your pervasive developmental disorders.

Worried to the point of exhaustion?
That’s not because your education and upbringing didn’t equip you with adequate coping mechanisms for the realities of an uncertain future. It’s an anxiety disorder and you need TCAs and SSRI

I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t strive to recognize and address mental illness. I’m sure each and every one of us has seen or felt the effects of mental illness at some point in our lives. I’m saying we should appreciate mental diversity as we appreciate physical and social diversity.

Those of us that are awkward, nervous, or prone to worries need patients, caring, and appreciation for what we bring to the table.

A complex grisaille.

So expand the grey. Find beauty in its complexity, and opportunities to help all of us who exist within its gauzy borders to thrive. After all, grey is a common companion to us landlubbing lowermainlanders for the better part of the year.


the bus - a continued analysis

So there I was. With hundreds of others in line at the Commercial/Broadway Skytrain station. Waiting for the 99 B-Line to UBC. As per usual, when the bus filled up I stepped aside and waited for the next one to come, opening the way for hurried travelers to rush up and cram themselves into the accordion-connected rectangles.

And cram they did.

And then nothing happened. For about 10 minutes, nothing happened. The doors stayed open and the bus - now brimming with increasingly stressed commuters - stayed still. No one went anywhere.

And then another bus pulled up behind the first one; the full one; the stationary one. Still, nothing happened. Nobody went anywhere.

And then the second bus driver got out of the second bus. Looked around; looked confused. He got back in his bus.

Nothing happened.

People, given the curious circumstances, waited pretty patiently. And then something happened. The second bus driver, now perched keenly behind his steering wheel, honked his horn and beckoned to the three line-ups of people to come over and get in his bus.

Pandemonium ensued. Pan-freakin-demonium!

Line-ups, be-gone! Order, be damned! It was every person for themselves. As we rushed toward the second bus I found myself mockingly shouting, "People, there's gotta be a better way!" - a few of my busing brethren hesitated and, perhaps, reflected. But most of us just powered through the crowd. My subconscious might've just made a brilliant and distractive gambit, because not only did I get on the bus, but I got a seat!

And all this got me thinking about a conversation I had with a not-so-young man a month or so ago. We were talking about climate change, food security and if there is any hope for humanity. End of the world kinda stuff. He had (and still has) kids. So I asked him, "Given your bleak opinion of our future, what should we be teaching kids these days?" He paused thoughtfully: "How to grown their own food. And self defense."

Fair enough. And, this morning, I got a glimpse of what the future might hold for our communities.

This morning, the simple, every day order of a lineup crumbled so effortlessly at the honk of a horn and the wave of a hand. How are things going to go if/when less food comes into Vancouver than there are people who live here? The mettle of our communities will be tested on that day, my friends. What's your plan?


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

community and the classroom

This all (more or less) happened at Bishop's University.

A few days ago I let my two favourite undergraduate professors know about
The Gumboot. Their responses were different and hilarious. One said there was "too much piratology" and struggled to comprehend why West Coasters are so inspired by "water logged wood." The other, I was pretty sure, called me a troglodyte. Of course, I had to go and look up "troglodyte" to confirm what it meant (editor`s note: I was sorta close). Then I realized that he wasn't implying I was a troglodyte, but was actually using the colourful term to describe people who lurch through the grey streets of Winnipeg. And, you know, fair enough.* My former professor - and current friend - told me that it was, and is, impossible to build community. He said that positive change is a hopeless and naive pursuit. Well, gauntlet accepted, sir.

Moving on...

The professorial feedback about Vancouver's coolest new blog was correctly incorrect. But, most importantly, the aforementioned educators have been given a glimpse at what their classroom community-building has created. These profellas, after all, provided two of the most exceptional classroom communities North America had to offer. Whether or not Bishop's is a "good" or "real" university is a debate for the ages - for people who value balanced, well-rounded, liberally artistic, intimate, personalized education, this place is for you. If you want a giant library, state of the art technology and to be taught by a TA, go to UBC, McGill or U of T. The classrooms of the Bishop's History Department from 1999-2003, which may or may not have included boxed wine from time to time, sewed seeds for community engagement in real life. And, if done well, this experience can happen in a classroom anywhere.

Here's how.

In the spirit of Stewart Burgess's brilliance, I have constructed a matrix that displays the way that a classroom experience (mine is the example) can give learners the skills to positively engage their communities:




Arguing with Dr. Wegert about the tenets of socialism vs. unrelenting German rationalism

Negotiating • Standing up to authority • Confidence • Public speaking • Forming and delivering arguments

Building relationships with a diverse range of people and not being intimidated by the “powerful” ones

Learning about History

Historical perspective on horrible degree choice • Critical thinking • Research/Writing/Presenting

Learning and teaching about the past in an effort to plan for the future • Writing emails.

Drinking wine during seminars

Ability to responsibly consume alcohol in “high-stakes” social situations

Not looking like the office jackass when the delicious celebratory wine is opened

Taking time away from the Dr. Childs’s teachings of life during the First World War to discuss a fellow student’s quarter-life-crisis

Life in the present is more important than stories from the past • Active listening skills • Planned Happenstance

Think outside the box • Take risks • embrace and run with good ideas

Kurt’s perspective and the collaborative, interdisciplinary teamwork we used to destroy him (well, his neo-con , devil’s advocate arguments)

Understanding the power of diversity: my ideas are very rarely the best ones; really, it’s a team thing.

Kurt Heinrich is simultaneously an inspiring and annoying teammate. And being opened minded to new ideas and new communities makes us better equipped to engage others and change the world.

Tough marking, tougher feedback

Failure is fine • Learn from mistakes • Do better

Projects and the ideas behind them will fail, and we – as a community – need to keep going!

©Copyright 2009 Stewart Burgess and The Weekly Gumboot

To all the learners out there: your next step should be to figure out what community service learning means to you and then brainstorm some ways to take your experience in the classroom outside into your community. History at Bishop's University was a good place to start. But community within - and beyond - the classroom can do so much more for the world around us. So, next time you find yourself in a classroom don't just think about ideas; do them!

And, most importantly, have fun with it!


*No offense to the noble people of Winnipeg (or people who dislike footnotes). By living in that city, you`re automatically braver than most people in the world. Well done, folks.