Remembrance of simple pleasures

WordPress is a fascinating place.  On any given day you can glide through it like the waves off Kilauea and find tales to lift your spirit, make you laugh, or inspire you to punch through your screen.  Throughout history, the human experience has been in sharing our stories with one another, and what goes on here in the virtual world is a natural progression from and extension of those drawings on cave walls and epics of heroes told around a dying fire.  Cruising through, I find myself often amazed by the level of writing talent out there or dumbstruck by how fascinating other people’s lives are when compared to mine.

Yesterday was not a day to make anyone’s history books in terms of the events that unfolded in my particular corner of the globe.  The activities undertaken were perhaps best described as the mundane pursuits of the first world – cleaning, cooking, shopping, decorating.  Yet I can seldom recall days that have felt more fulfilling or invigorating, or have led me to fall asleep at their close so contented.  I’ve spent the morning wondering why – what was it about what I did on this particular day?

The spooky fruits of yesterday's labor.

Waking up to silence in the sunshine.  Attaching Christmas lights to the eavestrough before the cold weather sets in.  Carving pumpkins for tonight’s trick-or-treaters.  Vacuuming the bedrooms.  Letting the cat fall asleep on my lap.  Drinking a sumptuously rich hot chocolate made, surprisingly, only with pure cocoa, skim milk and artificial sweetener.  Gloved fingers in mittened hand with the love of my life, taking a post-dinner stroll in crisp night to view the Halloween stylings of our neighbors’ front porches.  A simple day, but one filled with smiles, good work, vigorous exercise and the company of the most special person in the world.  What more can one ask of a single day?

Writers are accustomed to dreaming big, as we shape accounts of things that were or conceive of things that never shall be.  Compared to the worlds we concoct with our minds and fingertips, reality often seems smaller, monochrome.  Yet the true treasures of life are not to be found on a remote mountaintop or in a galaxy far, far away.  They are the diamonds we call moments, especially when shared with those most dear to us.  Moments like yesterday.  They are visceral, to be savored and relished, and lived again when they’re needed, even unexpectedly – when summoned like Marcel Proust with his madeleine.  The challenge for a writer is to find the words to share them in a way that conveys even a fragment of the true experience.  Does the most unflinchingly accurate description of a diamond ever truly capture the sheen or the lustre of a viewing of the real thing?  More to the point, does it really need to?  Maybe this is one of those times to put down the pen, look away from one’s navel and stop trying to assign a philosophical meaning to something that doesn’t need to be over-analyzed to be appreciated solely for the magnificence of what it was.

Yesterday was a great day.  A peaceful, uncomplicated, rewarding day.  And perhaps in its own peaceful, uncomplicated way, that’s more than enough.

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Writing Lessons from Gene Roddenberry

Writers are often asked who their influences are.  The most literate of us will rattle off a multitude of the classical masters – Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Hugo, Kafka, Flaubert, Joyce, Proust; others will offer more contemporary choices like Melville, Hemingway, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Marquez.  Still others will rely on the latter half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st:  DeLillo, Morrison, Franzen, even J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer.  You’ll of course have the hipsters who will proclaim their allegiance to some underground deconstructionism theorist you’ve never heard of.  But for all of us, inspiration is where we find it, even if it’s in a dime-store potboiler by a forgotten hack that you simply can’t put down.

I’ve decided to devote a few blog posts to talking about the influences on my writing.  I’ve wanted a career in writing of some form or another ever since I was young.  As a junior reader I devoured Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, and my first effort at a “novel” was a forty-page hand-written knockoff called A Champion is Born.  I had great plans for that little book.  It was going to be published and make me a literary sensation at the tender age of 9.  I even had five or six sequels plotted out before puberty set in and my interest in horse racing abated in favour of a fascination with those far more mysterious and wonderful creatures, girls.  There is probably still a copy of A Champion is Born packed away in a box somewhere, best left as a memory of a simpler time.  Not to be too hard on a 9-year-old, but the biggest problem with that story, aside from its lack of originality, was that it wasn’t about anything.  It was the story of a rich kid with no problems who inherits a horse and ends up winning the Kentucky Derby.  You’re asleep already.

About the same time girls were becoming less icky and more ensorcelling, I discovered Star Trek.  An English writer named James Blish had novelized most of the episodes of the original series and these adaptations were bound into four “Star Trek Readers” that had been the property of my uncle and fell into my hands when my grandmother decided to do some spring cleaning.  I had flipped past the show without any great interest, thinking it “weird.”  But I loved those books.  That image of the kid under his bed with the flashlight?  That was me reading the tales of Kirk and Spock.  It wasn’t long before I decided I should see what these books were about.  At that time the only opportunity to see Trek on television was on CBC, Saturday mornings at 11.  You couldn’t tear me away.  Great screaming matches resulted if the parents attempted to insist on grocery shopping or other meaningless errands.

The story of the creation of the original Star Trek is a fascinating one.  Former police officer Gene Roddenberry wants to do a television series addressing topical issues like racism and the Vietnam War.  In the 1960’s, network executives want nothing to do with that.  Roddenberry’s solution is brilliant – set the show in outer space and tell those same stories as allegories and parables.  Instead of whites oppressing blacks, make it about blues oppressing greens.  Cast it with minorities in roles other than houseboy and comic relief.  Sneak the relevance past the network suits who can’t see beyond the weird makeup and special effects.  In ways that seem obvious to us now, Roddenberry breaks new ground and creates a series whose message resonates with millions of people so deeply that five spinoffs, eleven movies and hundreds of episodes later it has become far more than its creator ever could have imagined.  Why?  Well, the simplest answer is that it was about something.

Fundamentally, the purpose of all literature in whatever its form is to answer the question of what it means to be human.  Whatever I’m writing, I’m always mindful of that question – if I’m not, all I’m contributing is background noise.  Gene Roddenberry’s eyes were on the stars but his feet were on the ground.  That’s what made Star Trek work, and why it and not say, Lost in Space, became the classic it remains.  The lesson I take from him is that no matter what you are writing, no matter how out there the setting or how bizarre the characters seem, the story should always be about something.  The trick, as he showed with Star Trek, is to veil that “message” beneath a frame of entertainment.  People don’t want to be lectured.  They want to enjoy themselves.  To reach that audience then, there should be two levels to every story – what happens in it, and what it is about.  The two should be closely intertwined, but the latter should be hidden away, a treasure that must be unearthed, the nutrients beneath the sweet taste.  That, I believe, is what separates greatness from hackery and feasts from mere snacks.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t the first person to figure this out, but it was his work that revealed it first to me.  For that I’m eternally grateful.  So if you read something here that you like, a tiny part of it is thanks to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Live long and prosper.

It has to get better

Bullying sucks.  In all shapes and forms.  There’s no need for it.  There’s no excuse for it.  Some might argue that you’ll find stronger animals preying on weaker ones throughout the wilderness.  But in human beings, bullies are inevitably those who have no true strength compensating for their insecurities by attacking the ones who are different – who are special.  It’s the weak lashing out at the vulnerabilities of the stronger in spirit.  Or to paraphrase Gore Vidal, it’s not that it’s enough to win; everyone else has to lose.  Schadenfreude gone wild.

You can tell by what’s been released about him since his suicide that Jamie Hubley was a special kid.  What’s burned most in my memory is the photograph of him in a dress shirt and bowtie with his father’s arm draped over his shoulder, both beaming with pride.  You can see the love there.  It could be a picture of any father and son.  What’s particularly sad about Jamie’s loss is that he was not someone who was passively taking his bullying, he was trying to make things get better.  He had tried to set up a gay-straight alliance at his school only to see his posters torn down by ignorant half-wits.

In the aftermath of Jamie’s suicide and the subsequent media coverage, a group of Conservative MP’s and senators released an “It Gets Better” video.  A lot of criticism and discussion resulted, questioning both the sincerity of the statements and the cheapness of the production, given that some of this party’s MP’s have gone on record with some pretty ugly homophobic remarks in the past, and that they would have likely spared no expense if this had been an ad attacking the Leader of the Opposition.  I suppose they could have done nothing at all.  But it is a bit rich to see a party who have made it a habit of governing by bullying now claiming that bullying is wrong and trying to tell kids that it really does get better – unless you’re elected to the House of Commons.

No one is born with hatred inside.  Like one’s ABC’s, it is taught – impressed upon innocent, unknowing children by parents or institutions who are sadistically cognizant that the only way to spread the flame of prejudice is to nourish it with a constant diet of fear.  “Those people aren’t like you.”  “They’re the ones responsible for everything that’s wrong in your life.”  “It’s your duty to attack them, to bring them down.”

Leadership starts by example and it is a responsibility vested in all of us.  What example are children to take when the next kid tries to start a gay-straight alliance in his school, and adults try to squelch such organizations on the justification that “we don’t have Nazi groups either,” as was the case with a prominent Catholic District School Board chair earlier this year?  Equating a club of teenagers trying to promote tolerance and understanding with the most genocidal regime of the 20th Century, no matter how “off the cuff” the remark, only reinforces and helps to spread attitudes that should have died in Hitler’s bunker.  Every ignorant remark by a grown-up creates another bully somewhere.

How do we stop it?  Sadly, it’s too late for Jamie Hubley, but the rest of us have to start trying a hell of a lot harder.  The answer is in, as my father once told me, finding the courage to break the bully’s nose.  It’s in the kid who sees the smaller kid being picked on and decides to step in instead of hurrying past, hoping not to be noticed.  It’s in the refusal of the silent ones to stay silent; it’s in their resolve to stand up for the victims instead.  It’s in not pretending that it will just go away.  It’s in not letting the bully win, ever – whether in the schoolyard, at the office or in the government.  It’s calling them out.  It’s shouting “I’m here, I’m special, and you can shove your taunts and your lies up your lily-livered ass.”

It gets better when we make it better.  Let’s make it better.

My my, little pony

What kind of week has it been?  Occupy Wall Street is spreading.  The GOP presidential contenders are an increasingly madcap circus act absent only the clown noses.  Canada is about to get slammed with ridiculous “tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentencing laws that even Texas Republicans say don’t work.  Carson Kressley got voted off Dancing with the Stars.  And it’s raining so hard tonight that one half expects to spot a bearded man gathering two of every animal.  What better time to talk about… My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic?

At first you might think that I have finally lived up to the name of this blog and gone, accordingly, crackers.  But the spread of this latest pop culture phenomenon is fascinating and worth some discussion.  Besides, I feel like I’ve gotten awfully serious in the last few posts and I, not to mention readers, could probably use a little bit of fluff to part the clouds.

Last year, HUB in the U.S., formerly Discovery Kids, began airing My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic.  The animated series follows the exploits of studious young unicorn Twilight Sparkle and her friends:  countrified orchard keeper Applejack, posh fashion designer Rarity, tomboy speedster Rainbow Dash, sweet and timid Fluttershy and basically bonkers Pinkie Pie, learning lessons as they tangle with relationships, responsibilities and the occasional monster.  It sounded for all intents and purposes like just another girly, glorified toy commercial.

But then the series hit the Internet, and like the proverbial wildfire, exploded, as a demographic beyond the dreams of the show’s creators seized upon it and began extolling its virtues on popular discussion boards like 4chan and Memebase.  Episodes were dissected, minutiae memorized.  An animator’s error crossing one of the background ponies’ eyes gave birth to a fan-fiction character, “Derpy Hooves,” with a history and personality all her own.  Teenage boys and even older fans adopted the show’s catchphrases and dubbed fellow enthusiasts “bronies” – a portmanteau for ‘brother ponies.’  It did not take long for fandom to spread beyond cyberspace – the phenomenon became so large that bronies were deemed worthy of mocking (unsurprisingly) on Fox News, Stephen Colbert gave bronies a shout-out on his show, and even President Bill Clinton was quizzed on his knowledge of Friendship is Magic on a recent radio appearance.  (For the record, No. 42 got all three questions right.)

What the hell, the unconverted might ask.  What do all these people see in a kid’s cartoon?

This, perhaps?

Firstly, it’s funny as all get out.  Series creator Lauren Faust has The Powerpuff Girls on her CV, another ostensibly “girly cartoon” that peppered its plots with enough clever pop culture references to amuse any adults who happened to be in the room half-watching along with their kids.  The humor in MLP:FIM doesn’t rely on tired allusions to worn-out zeitgeist staples like say, Family Guy might, but instead manages to find the humor in its characters, often in a wink to an awareness of its own absurdity as a world inhabited by anthromorphic ponies.  Witness an episode featuring a horse-drawn carriage, where the horse dragging the carriage stops, looks back at his fellow horse riding inside it and says “Ok, your turn to pull now.”  Secondly, despite the fantastical setting, the problems faced by the “mane six” are very real, and very relatable.  Unlike so many anime-influenced cartoons where of a twenty-two minute running time, ten of those minutes are devoted to fight scenes, six to redundant transformation sequences and the last few on actual character and plot, the ponies’ adventures often find them simply overcoming jealousy, petty rivalries, xenophobia, prejudice and ignorance, forging tighter bonds of friendship through understanding rather than a super-mega-plus-over-9000-uber-power explosion.

Thirdly, perhaps most of all, the characters are likeable and truly endearing.  Each has a charming quirk that never veers into pretense.  For Applejack, it’s her Southern drawl and her myriads of relatives all named after breeds of apples, from older brother Big Macintosh to doddering old Granny Smith.  Rainbow Dash scores for her Maverick-esque love of and need for speed.  Pinkie Pie’s unpredictable non-sequiturs and never-ending cheerfulness lead her to steal every scene she’s in.  But the most popular has turned out to be the milquetoast pegasus pony Fluttershy (seen above), whose tender voice – performed by actress Andrea Libman – and mannerisms practically dare you not to sigh “awww,” as if you were looking at your umpteenth YouTube kitten video.  Fluttershy’s most notable moment comes in an episode where Rainbow Dash is trying to teach her how to cheer, and Fluttershy can only respond with a pathetic, whispered “yay.”  Of course by the end of the episode she explodes with excitement at her friend’s triumph in achieving the fabled “sonic rainboom.”

If it all sounds awfully saccharine to you, you’re probably right.  Why then does it rate so highly with people who would otherwise dismiss it as childish nonsense?  MLP:FIM has become a shining example of what I referred to when talking about Star Wars a few posts ago, the idea of remix culture – art that is no longer the property of one but is instead shared and shaped by legions.  Indeed, the show’s creators have embraced their internet following and have even incorporated some of the fan creations into their own canon, transforming the series essentially into an interactive experience.  More than that, My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic succeeds, I think – and why for Fox News its popularity does not compute – because it is completely devoid of cynicism and snark.  When so much of our popular culture and indeed our humor is devoted to mocking the shortcomings of others, MLP:FIM stands apart as a warm, innocent and welcome throwback to a yearning that many of us have buried inside, that our problems can indeed be solved with compassion and without tearing each other down.  Sometimes it’s good for the soul to embrace the sweetness and simply enjoy something on a visceral level without pausing to take the piss.

And if that makes us bronies, then I guess I’d just say, after Rainbow Dash, that we’re 20% cooler because of it.

John Lennon, the toppermost of the poppermost

A message that endures.

Today is John Lennon’s birthday.  The founder of the Beatles, one of the most fascinating musicians of all time would have been 71 had his life not been cut short by a deranged fame-seeking loner.  Though he has been gone for over three decades, Lennon remains a compelling figure; a man who has been admired, studied, written about, talked about and portrayed by a countless array of performers.  And rarely does a day go by when his most lasting contribution to the world – his music – is not heard on the radio, downloaded by a new fan, performed by an aspiring bar band or discussed at length by those of us still enraptured by his incredible legacy.

 
Why does John Lennon have such a hold on the world 31 years after his death?  In the pantheon of artists who passed away before their time, why is Lennon the most singular figure?  It can be argued that in terms of their relative impact on music, Elvis Presley was more significant – the man who basically took blues and melded it with country to forge it into rock & roll.  But what is Elvis today?  A punchline, fodder for cheesy impersonators in bad wigs mumbling “Thank you, thank you very much.”  Towards the end of his life, Elvis became symbolic of the worst excesses of the rock star – bloated, hiding in a cavernous mansion, shooting televisions, eating deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and finally succumbing to drugs in his bathroom.  While John Lennon certainly had his eccentricities – the bed-ins, the strange recordings of screaming and warbling passed off as “art” – the main reason he doesn’t turn up in the pages of the Enquirer having just been spotted at a supermarket, is that in his message – one of a lasting hope for peace – there is nothing to mock.
 
Some stars seem more than human.  They appear, whether intentionally on their part or not, to inhabit a celestial echelon unattainable by we mortals who gaze upon them from afar with admiration.  While John and indeed all four of the Beatles were arguably the greatest and most influential stars of music of all time, what endeared them most to their fans was that throughout the peaks and pitfalls of their career, they always seemed human.  They never took themselves as seriously as they could have given the astronomical heights of their achievements, and remained for all intents and purposes, regular lads.  They were not perfect nor did they pretend to be; they made mistakes, they fought amongst themselves, they spoke from their hearts without filters and without poll-testing and clearing everything through publicists first.  Like the Buddha, they simply were.  The honesty of their music and the positivity of the message that resulted from that honesty could not help but touch the soul.
 
As The Beatles wound down, John chose to devote himself to the cause of peace.  He was an unlikely messenger for it – a man who admitted his faults, who did not attempt to veil the rage inside.  He could be horrible to those closest to him, particularly to his own family and dearest friends.  But just as only Nixon could go to China, a man like John, full of anger and bitterness towards the world, was the only one who could communicate the need for peace so vividly, so completely and so perfectly.  We all have that rage inside.  We resent the misfortunes that have been thrust upon us through what we feel is not our fault.  We want to scream and curse at the whole world.  We are all that angry boy crying for his lost mother.  And we can overcome it.
 
John Lennon asked us in the simplest terms, only to imagine peace – knowing that imagining is the first step to making it happen.  Most importantly, he recognized that peace was too important a message to be limited to the leadership of one, it must be a mantle taken up by the many.  In one of his last interviews, John scoffed at the idea that people considered him a guru, or a messiah.  He didn’t want that.  He wanted to make his music and be left alone.  More than that, he specifically did not want people to rely on him to tell them how to look at the world.  In “God,” John steps back from that leadership role, singing, “I was the walrus, but now I’m John.  And so, dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on.”  This line isn’t a cynical rejection.  He knew that people had the capacity to make peace in their own way and that was the only way peace was going to happen.  He still sings it to us today and challenges us to take up the torch in his absence.
 
In one of his most notorious quotes, John once observed that The Beatles had become more popular than Jesus.  It’s perhaps dangerous ground to tread, but the popularity of the Beatles and of John Lennon can be likened to that of Christianity in its appeal – in its ideal, most uncorrupted form – to the best parts of ourselves.  No matter our stripe, we’re all looking for the answer.  John told us that it was love, but he left it up to us to find that love on our own.  The challenge of faith is in maintaining the devotion to the search, in the recognition that the realization of the objective may never come until the very end.  But the road is worth the walk.  And so on John Lennon’s 71st birthday, we lace up our shoes and set out again with his songs playing on our iPod and his dream alive forever in our hearts.

Ontario Election 2011: What Kind of Day Has it Been?

This is my final post for the Toronto Star’s Speak Your Mind, as published on their website this morning and reprinted here by their kind permission.  Please ignore the shameless self-promotion in the final paragraph as it was meant for non-regular readers of this blog.

In the City of Burlington, the more things stay the same, the more they stay the same.

In a result that surprised only the politically naïve, Conservative Jane McKenna maintained the PC’s 70-year hold on the riding by a few thousand votes over her closest opponent, Liberal Karmel Sakran.  The NDP’s Peggy Russell was a distant third, although she improved the NDP’s vote totals from 2007.  None of the other party candidates made a dent.  In the end, the status quo reigns.

A couple of lessons to take from this result – primarily, that the Blue Machine in Burlington remains formidable in its city-wide presence and get-out-the-vote efforts, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  Despite the troubled and controversial candidate nomination process Team Blue underwent in the pre-writ, this riding boasts a solid bloc of Conservative voters who will remain loyal no matter whose name is on the ballot.  It is noteworthy to mention that what distinguishes Burlington from next-door neighbour Oakville, where Liberal Kevin Flynn was re-elected to his third term, is that most unlike Oakville, Burlington boasts a fairly large rural community.  Province-wide, the Tories cleaned up in the rural ridings.  Many rural voters are upset with Liberal policies like the Greenbelt, a swath of which dominates Burlington’s north, and a general feeling, justified or not, that their concerns are passed over in favour of the urban areas.  Those voters tend to be get-government-out-of-the-way conservatives and they always make it to the polls in large numbers.

And yet, the combined total of Liberal and NDP votes exceeded McKenna’s numbers by a considerable margin, suggesting conservatives are outnumbered in Burlington by a majority of generally progressive voters who could finally tip the balance if a single progressive candidate could rally their support.  Burlington’s council leans progressive and its mayor once ran federally for the Green Party, so it’s a misconception to assume that the city’s political leanings are as far to the right as say, somewhere in Alberta.  Despite the apparent Conservative lock, the riding remains poachable.

One of the things that the federal Conservatives are regularly pilloried for is to have their nominees or failed candidates acting as “shadow MP’s” in their ridings, establishing a community presence and visibility with an eye to the next electoral cycle.  More often than not, it pays off – witness their gains in the GTA on May 2nd – and there is no reason why the Liberals or NDP couldn’t do that in Burlington either.  Find a face and get out there at local events and rallies starting tomorrow – not to undermine the MPP, but to humanize an alternative, and to try and suck some oxygen out of the traditional charges levelled too often without response against Liberals and New Democrats.

That’s tomorrow’s challenge, anyway.  Right now we offer congratulations to Jane McKenna as she takes her seat in the Legislature and hope that Dalton McGuinty’s foray as the leader of a minority government is more productive than Stephen Harper’s – that McGuinty’s focus will be on governing, not playing political games and seizing every opportunity to make the opposition look bad.  McGuinty can solidify himself as a true statesman by making this minority work and proving that Ontario was smart in trusting him with a third mandate, that the unpopular choices he made were the right ones.  Who knows – if he is successful in shepherding Ontario back to economic prosperity, there might be another job opening up in 2013 he’d become the odds-on favourite for – one that is currently held by another Premier of Ontario.

I’d like to thank the Toronto Star and Speak Your Mind for the wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts about my hometown and this election with you.  I’ll be continuing to blog at www.grahamscrackers.wordpress.com if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here and would like to see more.  Or you can follow me on Twitter at @thegrahammilne.  In closing I’d just like to remind everyone that our democracy is one of the most precious possessions we have, one that is envied the world over and is yet the most fragile of gifts.  We have been entrusted with this flame and we are morally bound to keep it bright.  Because the road back to the worst of dictatorship and despotism begins when good people choose to stay home and close their eyes.

Keep them open.

Ontario Election 2011: Endgame on Brant Street

As published on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star’s website today and reprinted by their kind permission.

Six weeks.  Six weeks of hand-shaking, baby-kissing, promise-making, mud-slinging and it’s all down to this.  By nine tonight it will all be over and the work of digging Ontario out of its troubles will resume.  Democracy at its finest.

If you believe the polls, and who doesn’t on occasion, Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals are on the cusp of staging a political comeback almost unheard of in Canadian history.  Who would have imagined in the dog days of August when the McGuinty crew was 20 points down, that reporters would be predicting a third consecutive Liberal majority in Ontario?  For Liberals like myself, still smarting from the federal pasting we took on May 2nd, it may well represent a turning of the red tide – and a welcome reminder that we are still part of the conversation, that we haven’t had the fight beaten out of us yet.  But we’ll wait and see where things are by the end of the night before Team Red pops the champagne corks.

The question remains as to how Burlington will fare when the last votes are tallied.  The massive Forum Research poll conducted a week ago had Conservative Jane McKenna leading Liberal Karmel Sakran by nine points.  As I mentioned in my first post, Burlington has a long tradition of voting blue, sending a Conservative to Queen’s Park in every election since 1943.  Will the tradition continue?

McKenna has hit most of the key issues, promising to fund the expansion of Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital and pledging to keep the proposed Mid-Peninsula Highway – which could potentially cut an asphalt swath through the fragile Niagara Escarpment – out of Burlington entirely.  But some of the other promises made by her boss haven’t sat especially well here.  A small Burlington-based green-energy business held a protest on Monday morning against Tim Hudak’s plan to repeal the Green Energy Act, saying it would destroy emerging jobs in this growing sector.  And local municipal politicians are raising concerns over the potential resumption of downloading in service costs that took place under Mike Harris, warning that tremendous property tax hikes could result.

Karmel Sakran and the NDP’s Peggy Russell appear to have both run strong campaigns.  But as it did six weeks ago, the race remains Jane McKenna’s to lose.  The Conservative ethos is so entrenched in the voting population of Burlington it will take a tremendous surge in support for one of the other major party candidates to pry this riding out of their hands after almost 70 years.  Still, it’s noteworthy that Tim Hudak has made several visits to Burlington and chose to stop here on the final night of the campaign to shore up support – as if his internal polling is telling him something else.  We won’t know until tomorrow night if history will repeat itself, or offer up a big surprise.

Joseph Brant himself once said, “We are tired out in making complaints and getting no redress.”  It is crucial that whoever is fated to be Burlington’s next MPP hits the ground running as a committed advocate for our community.  We have seen too many of our representatives acting as invisible seat-fillers, and this great city deserves so much more.  It deserves a champion.  Someone who knows Burlington’s soul and can channel the spirit of its people – cheering the Teen Tour Band during Sound of Music and inhaling barbecue at Ribfest.  Perhaps those expectations are a little lofty for something as ostensibly pedestrian as a provincial election, but if you are selecting an advocate for 175,799 of your neighbours, there’s nothing wrong in aiming as high as you can.  The greater crime is to settle for less.

See you at the polling station, friends.

Ontario Election 2011: Waiting for Bartlet

As published on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star this morning and reprinted by their kind permission as always.

If you’re a political junkie, watching The West Wing spoils you.

Listening to imaginary politicians like Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet lacerate their opponents with the inspired, honey-tongued erudition that is the trademark of writer Aaron Sorkin creates an expectation that real life should function the same way.  That our leaders should be able to articulate their arguments so clearly and incisively, that contrarians can do nothing but wither at the mere sound of the words.

Tuning into an Ontario election debate disabuses one of that notion.

I wasn’t able to attend the Burlington debate this week.  The organizers apparently did not count on much, if any public attendance, given their decision to schedule it during the Tuesday morning commute.  One of the highlights, it seems, was Conservative candidate Jane McKenna warning that Ontario’s economy risks going the way of Greece should the Liberals be re-elected.  The cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of democracy and souvlaki, held up as the paradigm of governmental failure – by candidates seeking government office through democratic election.  One could write several college English papers on the levels of irony at work here.  What is less ironic is that McKenna probably didn’t come up with that insightful analogy on her own; it was likely scripted, shaped and poll-tested at Hudak Headquarters before being rolled out for Burlington’s ears on Tuesday morning.

A few thousand years before Greece’s economy collapsed, its scholars were shaping the fabric of democracy itself through their dialogues and discussions.  Our best literature is that which raises new ideas and examines them from all sides; thesis challenged with antithesis to generate a new conclusion.  We haven’t seen that in a political debate in ages.  Nowadays, debates are more like joint press conferences where each candidate recites his or her pre-approved script by rote and hopes not to stumble over the words they didn’t write themselves.  The one debate I was able to attend a few weeks ago, for a different riding, featured five candidates who barely acknowledged each other’s presence, let alone interacted or challenged each other to defend their ideas.  No minds were opened that evening, no fence-sitters swayed or opponents converted.  Deliver talking point, lather, rinse, repeat, snooze.

Indeed, the bar has been set so low that all a candidate need do is not knock over their podium to be judged as having given a solid performance.  It was amazing to witness the struggle with which columnists and bloggers attempted to ascribe victory to any of the contenders in Tuesday night’s leader’s debate.  Tim Hudak saying to Dalton McGuinty that “no one believes you anymore” was apparently a signature moment.  Andrea Horwath’s tale about her son being sent away from an ER with a bone fracture was another “winner.”  And the Premier garnered more ink for his animated hand gestures than for anything he actually said.

Seasoned political reporters disdain the idea of the “knockout punch,” like Brian Mulroney’s “You had an option, sir,” or Jack Layton’s “If Canadians don’t show up to work, they don’t get a promotion.”  They think it’s less important than staying on message, sticking to your platform, getting the facts out.  They’re probably right.  But the unabashed theatricality of moments like that is what makes voters not just choose a candidate, but fall in love with them.  It’s one thing to have a great platform and a solid message.  But we want to see someone alive on that stage, a true character – not a marionette who has to calculate all the potential political blowback of each word before he speaks it.

Today there is too much fear of fallout to risk letting the human being shine through – too much central control of the campaign, lest news cycles be lost to apologies, denials and explanations for rogue nominees going off-message.  The very process that selects candidates tends to weed out the most colorful, and only the blandest and safest survive the slings and arrows to make it to that podium.  Those that do rely on the same tactics – the tales of struggling souls encountered along the campaign trail whose concerns oddly happen to dovetail with the key planks of the party’s platform, the countless mentions of family, the interruptions, the use of “taxes” as a profanity.  You know what they’re going to say before they say it.  What I felt was Tim Hudak’s most clever line of the night, about rearranging his daughter’s alphabet magnets randomly to form the initials of every unnecessary Ontario government agency, was a little less fresh given that PC candidate Ted Chudleigh used the same line in the Halton debate a few weeks prior.  Or that Republicans were laying the exact same charge against the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940’s.

Debates are a cornerstone of the democratic process.  That we only have one leader’s debate in an election cycle is preposterous.  We need more.  And just once it would be great if the debaters threw away the script.  If we junked those stilted “questions from average Canadians” and let the politicians have at it in a real sparring match of intellectual prowess, one that allowed us to distinguish clearly between which ideology we feel is best to guide us into the next decade.  To make our choice not for just the best policies, but for the best person; not a manager, but a visionary.

That’s how The West Wing got Jed Bartlet.  That’s how you pick a leader.