Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I Am Woman, Hear Me Negotiate

           In the words of feminist Catherine MacKinnon “The power to make reality be real is the social power to act, not just imagine.”  Every year on September 21st the world celebrates International Peace Day, a day dedicated to the global pursuit of sustainable peace and development.  Being the International Affairs nerd that I am, International Peace Day is my favourite holiday because it promotes optimism in humanity by shedding light on the progress being made, and the heroes that are making it.  But most importantly it is about empowering everyone to realize that they, as individuals, have the right and capability to contribute to peace through personal choices and actions.
            In honour of International Peace Day I thought it would be fun to celebrate the contributions of some amazing women who have been pushing the peace process in the midst of two of the worst ongoing conflicts in the world.  2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan and the tragic 20th anniversary of Somalia’s civil war.  But rising above the perils of armed conflict, Asha Hagi Elmi and Malalai Joya continue to define femininity with courage, dedication and a relentless thirst for social justice.

Asha Hagi Elmi
            In a society where most girls are prevented from attending even primary school, Asha Hagi Elmi was among the overwhelming minority of women in Somalia who was able to obtain an education.  Since then she has played an integral role in the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights in Somalia through her organization Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC).  Despite threats, ridicule, humiliation and endangerment, Asha was able to negotiate a position for 100 women at the 2000 Arta Peace Talks.  Four years later she became the first woman to be a signatory to a Somali peace agreement.  These efforts have resulted in a more gender-friendly charter, as well as greater political representation for Somali women.

Malalai Joya
            Malalai Joya is a former Afghani Member of Parliament who earned her reputation as “the bravest woman in the world” by standing up to the Afghani government and accusing several key figures of corruption.  It was a dramatic display met by insults and threats from her opponents as she fiercely questioned their ‘leadership’.  Since then she has lived in exile and faces almost certain death upon return to Afghanistan.  She currently tours the world engaging in dialogue about the war with international politicians and public audiences to help address problems faced by women and civilians in Afghanistan.

            It can sometimes be hard to imagine peace in a world that demands people defend their own equality, but International Peace Day is about overcoming that scepticism and spiritedly declaring “Yes We Can!”  Human rights are universal, and when we give up on the places where they are not adequately implemented we turn our backs on the people who are unwillingly subjected to oppression.  Underprivilege anywhere is underprivilege everywhere, and losing faith in the future is always dangerous.  So go forth and celebrate International Peace Day like you’ve never celebrated before.
Here are some activities I recommend for a funtastic International Peace Day:
1.      If you are cool like me you will already have your iTunes playlist entitled “Save the World Music”, in which case all you need to do is listen to it.  If you do not have such a playlist it is very simple to make. First add the John Lennon classic “Imagine”, followed by John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change”, then K’Naan’s “Waving Flag” (the original, not the FIFA World Cup version) and “In the Beginning”, also by K’Naan.  Finally, download an awesome song called “Let It Rain” by Sy’Rai and *Artists United 4 Children and Youth Development (AUCAYD).  This track can be found on the War Child 10 album.  Feel free to add any other songs that put you in the mood for saving the world.
2.      Hug somebody.  In fact, hug lots of people.  Hug a tree even!
3.      Make a contribution to an entrepreneur through a microfinance site like Kiva to help create employment opportunities in developing communities.
4.      Learn five United Nations acronyms and impress your friends with your wisdom.  A few suggestions include UNHCR, ECOSOC, UNHDI, DPKO and UNESCO, but the list is pretty close to infinite if none of those tickle your fancy.  You could probably even turn it into some kind of a drinking game.  If you’re a real keener you may also want to learn the eight Millenium Development Goals.  You won’t be disappointed!
5.      Enjoy a cozy chat with a friend over a delicious Fair Trade latte as you relish the smooth rich taste brought to you by good labour conditions and environmental sustainability.  Yum!
6.      Feel empowered by this Sandra Whitworth quote about why women are amazing: “When a critical mass of women are present on peacekeeping missions they make a unique contribution, and they are particularly successful in the diffusion of violence, are perceived to be compassionate, willing to listen, and sometimes employ unorthodox techniques, such as singing, to diffuse potentially violent situations.” Girl Power!

Remembering Jack Layton

The first time I met Jack was in 2006.  I was pretty new to the whole political thing, and I decided to embark upon my activist quest by raiding an NDP pub night on enemy territory (aka University of Ottawa campus).  I was chatting with the UofO NDP club President, when suddenly she looked at her phone and squealed “Oh my God, Jack and Olivia are coming and they’re on their way right now!!!  Eeeeeeeee!!!!!!!”  At that time I had absolutely no idea who Olivia was, or why it was so exciting that she was on her way.  But I definitely knew who Jack was, and for that I may have partaken in the excited squealing just a little.  In ten short minutes I would be shaking the hand of the legendary man behind “the stache”. 
There have been a number of references to Jack being the party leader that people would most like to have a beer with, and let me tell you, drinking beer with Jack Layton lives up to the hype!  I’ve had the privilege a few times over the years, and not only was he a great speaker, but a great listener as well.  He was incredibly comfortable around young people, and in return young people were comfortable around him.  He was engaging and charismatic, but most importantly he made you feel confident that somebody was going to stand up for you and your *kitchen table.  (*If you are currently playing the Jack Layton drinking game this would be your cue to take a swig.)
I think one of the reasons Jack’s speeches made great drinking games is that he was the master of the soundbite.  Like his name, he had a way of keeping things snappy and succinct.   I recall some friends reliving his 2008 Leadership Debate zinger where he asked Harper if he was hiding his policies under his sweater vest.  Or there was that incident in the 2011 debates when he told Iggy that most people can’t skip work and then ask for a promotion.  Jack had a way with words and it helped *“ordinary Canadians” relate to him and want to drink beer with him.  (*swig) 

Moving ahead a few years, I had figured out who Olivia was, and also why a legit NDP should probably recognize the Trinity-Spadina MP (and wife of the NDP leader).  I began working in her office in 2009 and she quickly became my superhero.  During the funeral service they showed a video where Jack commented that it took him exactly four nanoseconds to fall in love with Olivia, but he had no idea what he was getting himself into.  I think that’s the way everyone probably feels five nanoseconds after meeting Olivia.  She is smart, she is cool, and she is notorious for moving faster than the speed of light.  I learned more from 30 seconds in her office than I have in the rest of my life combined, not just about politics but about leadership.  Working with her gave me a confidence I never had before because she challenges you to do things you didn’t realize you were capable of and then gives you the support you need to make it happen.  She is truly one of those defining figures in my life, and also she bought me lunch.
A lot of people have commented on Olivia’s strength since Jack’s death, but knowing OC I can’t even imagine her any other way.  This is the same Olivia Chow who dragged me to the gym at 7:00 in the morning, and while I was struggling through my sit-ups she was whipping through them like a pro while simultaneously typing furiously on her blackberry, which I’m pretty sure is actually surgically attached to her thumbs.  I remember one time declaring on facebook that “Working for Olivia Chow is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle choice.” 
Another of my favourite memories of Olivia was one time when Jack was speaking at a rally in front of Parliament.  It was a pretty small gathering, and I can’t even remember what it was for, but I think it was something to do with bikes.  What I remember was standing beside Olivia, and right after Jack delivered a fantastic speech she turned to me and quietly but glowingly said “Isn’t he amazing?”  That is the moment that makes me know that, despite her calmness and strength, she is a woman who misses her husband an incredible amount right now.

I’ve had a lot of great Jack memories, but my favourite ones involved a week where I lived in his basement.  One of the many perks of working for Olivia was getting to stay in their house when I travelled to the T-Dot to work in the Constituency Office.   OC wasn’t around the house much because she is the single busiest human I have ever seen and I’m not entirely convinced she isn’t at least 1/8 robot.  Jack was at home taking it easy because he was still recovering from prostate cancer.  He didn’t really know me at the time, and I’m almost certain Olivia failed to warn him I was going to be staying there, so he seemed slightly surprised when I walked into his living room where he was watching the news and awkwardly asked him for the wifi code.  He looked at me for a second, immediately accepted me as his newest adopted stray Hill staffer, and graciously gave me internet.  I got the impression he’d had similar experiences in the past.
Throughout the week I was lucky enough to have several encounters with Jack, and I grew to respect him in a new way.  Every time I saw him he was on his way out for a run, or putting a few miles on the stationary bike.  I found it really admirable because here was this 60 year old man overcoming cancer constantly persevering and pushing himself to limits that most of us don’t even dream about.  I think witnessing that was one thing that made his death particularly hard, knowing that he did everything in his power to beat it (including a diet of thousand year old eggs as exposed by Rick Mercer).   

During the eulogies Jack was quoted as saying “Always have a dream that lasts longer than a lifetime.”  What a beautiful message, and one that he embodied right to the end of his life.  In his final year Jack reached unprecedented success.  He rang in the NDP’s 50th Anniversary mere weeks after becoming the country’s Official Opposition party for the first time in NDP history.  He gained over 60 seats and took the party to levels never before achieved.  He saw his son Mike elected into office and his granddaughter Beatrice turn one.  And as a testament to his unwillingness to back down on something he believed in, he concluded Canada’s 40th Parliamentary session with an epic 58 hour filibuster over Canadian labour rights. 
Now, a month after his passing, his final words to the nation continue to resonate and inspire.  “Love is better than anger.  Hope is better than fear.”  Canada did not just lose one of its political leaders, it lost its favourite drinking buddy.  And with that I raise a pint of union brew to hope and optimism that with his guidance “we’ll change the world”.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Messing With Perfection

Many years ago one of my Ballet teachers offered these valuable words of wisdom: “corrections are like gifts”.  I didn’t like her.  I think that was largely because she hated children and our encounters frequently ended with tears streaming down my face.  But the fact is I basically don’t like anyone who gives me criticism.  Face it, they’re assholes!

Over the years I have developed a few good tactics for deflecting criticism that I wanted to offer just in case anyone else out there shares my aversion to self-improvement.
1.      The simple but effective “you’re wrong” defense.  If somebody constructively criticizes you, offer them ten million reasons why they are dead wrong.  Relentlessly justify your own reasoning and expect everyone else to adapt to it.  Never listen to someone else’s opinion and say “hmm, I hadn’t thought of that, what a great suggestion.  Thanks!”  Why would you?  If it’s such a great idea then obviously you would have thought of it yourself. 
2.      The old classic “that’s because you didn’t explain it right” defense.  Probably the best way to dodge responsibility for your imperfections is by projecting them onto other people and making it all their fault.  You might consider saying something like “I wouldn’t have failed this exam if Mr. McJerkface wasn’t such a horrible teacher”, or perhaps “I wouldn’t have been fired and arrested for hacking into your system and embezzling millions of dollars if you weren’t such a dickhead boss and your firewall security wasn’t so pathetic”.  The bottom line is that what you did wrong is everyone else’s fault but yours.  A variation on this method is to ignore their critique completely and launch straight into insulting them.  
3.      The popular and ever relevant “blame it on the rain” defense.  Gladly spill out a thousand justifications for why you’re not perfect... at this particular moment.  “I didn’t get enough sleep last night; it’s too cold; people are stupid; the television pretty much held a gun to my head and forced me to watch Fresh Prince reruns for 13 consecutive hours...”  The point is, under any other circumstances except these ones you would have done it totally awesome.  In fact nobody could possibly have done this thing better than you would have if not for that lousy no good (enter selected excuse here).
4.      The sometimes controversial “I was doing that to be ironic you just don’t get me” defense.  You don’t like my joke?  Well that’s because I’m intellectually superior to you so deal with it.  My skirt is stuck in my pantyhose and there’s toilet paper trailing from my shoe?  That’s how I meant to wear it.  So sorry I didn’t rip off my new look from the cover of Vogue like the rest of you posers. 
5.      In the unlikely event that none of these are available means of deflection just cry. 

People always claim they mean well and are only trying to be helpful when they inform me I have lipstick on my teeth, or that my million dollar idea to stop global warming by cooling the earth’s temperature via volcanic ash clouds might not lead to the Nobel Prize I consider myself to be destined for.  And deep down there’s a part of me that genuinely appreciates their input.  Really there is!  But mostly my heart just becomes filled with hate as I gleefully imagine them choking on food.

Now, for all of you sceptics who think that making excuses instead of accepting feedback is counterproductive, let me just alleviate your fears by listing a few of my (almost) accomplishments:
1.      Olympic gold medal in the Steeple Chase (My running shoes didn’t fit right so I couldn’t really practice)
2.      Nobel Prize (It wasn’t a terrible idea, the Nobel committee was just too narrow-minded to think outside the box)
3.      The female lead on Glee (Ryan Murphy and the Casting Director just weren’t at Karaoke night that time I totally rocked Journey)
4.      An Oscar (Hollywood is too establishment)
5.      President of the United States (I’m Canadian and I don’t have a Kenyan birth certificate)

So go forth and underachieve.  Don’t let anybody tell you they’re doing you a favour or giving you a “gift” by compromising your delusions of self-perfection.  Gifts include clothing, electronics, candy, jewellery, flowers and/or puppies.  Gifts don’t make you poke pins into voodoo dolls resembling the giver or throw darts at photos of their face. And while all those n00bs who actually achieve stuff are busy showing off their awards and accolades and running the country, take pleasure in the fact they’ll never get to say “I could have done that... if I really wanted to.”  And isn’t reflecting on what you could have accomplished really what life is all about?

I Don't Have An iPhone, Now I Can't Communicate

A few months ago my mother asked me “if you save a file on a USB key that already has another file on it do you ‘tape over’ the first one?”

My family has never been particularly ahead of the game when it comes to technology.  We are all hopelessly nostalgic.  Case in point: We had a rotary phone in the kitchen until 2008 that was not just for cute ironic decorative purposes.  We would still have it except that it came to our attention we were actually paying a monthly fee to ‘rent’ it.  After calculating that monthly fee over the course of, let’s see, three decades, we discovered that maybe $5,500 was a little more than we were willing to spend on a device so primitive you couldn’t even press 1 at any time to speak to an operator.  Also we were told by the phone company we had to return it, which may have been the greatest experience of my life because really, just imagine returning an f’ing rotary phone in 2008.  We were giving back merchandise that went out of style before the sales clerk’s parents were even born!  Luckily he just stared it like one of the apes with the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, then laughed at us and told us we could keep it.  Thank-you Brad!

When everyone got MySpace I was happily handwriting letters to my friends.  When I finally got hip to Facebook everyone was Tweeting and Tumbling.    When all my friends got their wiis and started raving about how awesome DDR was, I was just confused about why the sudden mass enthusiasm for Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration. (Not joking!)  In my defense I was on the home stretch of a degree heavily influenced by conflict and security studies at the time, so my capacity for acronyms had already been pushed well beyond the legal limit.  But still!

With so much stuff around it’s hard to know what is necessary and whether it’s worth investing time and money into.  Do I really need to get a Twitter account and then go wait in line for six days for the latest smart phone?  How many apps should I have?  As someone who has always lagged about as far as one can from the cutting edge without converting to Amish, I have experienced a few problems by not upgrading.  Here are some of the setbacks to being set back.
1.      It’s harder to stay competitive in the job market.  If employers require someone with advanced knowledge of Excel and you think that Microsoft is a kind of laundry detergent, you’re the one with the problem not them.  It doesn’t matter that your typewriter has made you incredibly fast and accurate, you’re still not getting the job.
2.      Everyone else can do things way faster than you.  By the time you finish looking through the library’s rolodex (if they actually have one) your competitor has already Googled their way to the finish line and is now selling their How To Succeed guide on E-Bay and Amazon.  Or people are just reading it on their sleek kindles.
3.      You limit your resources.  The internet provides an infinite supply of buyers for whatever you’re selling or sellers for whatever you’re buying.  If you have a business without a website, you pretty much don’t exist.  If you have any kind of interest in anything at all, you can find the connections you need to excel at it or at least find other people who share that interest.  Sometimes you can even make arrangements to meet them and it’s fun!
4.      You are more confused by people and less amused by their jokes.  There is a reason uproarious laughter breaks out at the phrase “leave Britney alone!”  Why not laugh with them?  If cinema is the big screen, and television is the small screen, Youtube is maybe the dump screen.  Sure it’s full of trash, but sometimes there’s a gem. 

So spoil yourself with at least a few of the latest gadgets and trends.  Surf the web.  It’s okay if you have no idea why double rainbows are so hilarious, or have never seen a sneezing panda or evil gopher.  It’s maybe even okay if you only have MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Messenger, a website, six e-mail addresses and a Blog, but draw the line at Tumblr.  There are only so many ways to say the same thing to the same people, right?  But what happens if your friend is choking on something and you have to use her phone to call an ambulance and you can’t figure out how to set the phone to phone?  She just dies right in front of you because you love your damn rotary too much.  How’s that going to feel?

Moral of the story: Sometimes it’s okay to get new stuff, or at the very least, replace old stuff.

A few final words of wisdom for keeping on top of things:
1.      You should not own the film Avatar on VHS or Beta. 
2.      Ataris are nerd chic and therefore cool in a way, but there have been developments in gaming since Frogger. 
3.      The @ and # keys on your computer are not just for censoring swear words anymore.
4.      ISPs are not a kind of birth control.  Floppy discs very well could be.
5.      DDR stands for Dance Dance Revolution, and the United Nations does not offer courses on it (that I’m aware of).  They do offer courses on Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration though.  I’m on the Honour Roll :)