The Heather Mallick Fan Club: Cheap and Convenient come at a cost

How can anyone in their right mind continue to believe that nothing is wrong in the way we do things in our society is beyond me. And yet, again and again, I talk to people who happily remain in the bubble that is their little self, convinced that nothing is wrong except the lower back pain they developed while shoveling the twenty centimeters of snow that has covered parts Eastern Canada in a chilly blanket (isn’t that an oxymoron).

How can anyone in their right mind admit that nothing is wrong and still not make the effort to search for information is also beyond me – but maybe not as much. After all, there is so much information out there that it can quickly become discouraging trying to sift the right from the wrong from the utterly absurd. Plus the risk of landing on an ‘icky’ site is also always there, which makes me sometimes very wary of treading on an unbeaten path.

But that’s just me.

Which is why I am grateful to have access to various columnist on ‘real’, ‘unicky’ sites such as the CBC who not only report about what is going on in the world, but also take the time to share their point of views. Interestingly enough, the ones that I read the most aren’t those whose opinions I agree with, but rather those who back up their opinions with facts and research, and who aren’t afraid to ask tough questions.

One topic that I am particularly passionate about is that of social justice. And one particular topic related to local social justice that has been knawing at me for the longest time is that of Wal-Mart.

I still don’t feel ready to write anything objective about Wal-Mart, so I am still at the research stage. And every once in awhile, amidst some good articles, I manage to find a couple of great ones.

Here is one of them.

Cheap and Convenient come at a cost, by Heather Mallick

Published on the CBC website on April 28th 2008

Last night I dreamt I went to Wal-Mart again. And I was happy there.

This worried me because the day before, I had gone to a Wal-Mart for the first time in my life, my real life, and I was badly frightened. I was checking out the store — sorry, industrial hangar exoskeleton — because developers want to build a Wal-Mart near my sort of cute, ramshackle, little-shops Toronto neighbourhood and I was there to see my future.

(…)

The fact that Wal-Mart is cheap (“Save money, live better!”) and convenient (18,000 parking spaces! Free!) are two puny words against the torrent of invective I and any other Canadian interested in airy concepts like “quality of life” could instantly pour upon Wal-Mart.

(…)

The price of cheapness

Wal-Mart is a giant American corporation (2006 revenue of $315 billion) run out of Arkansas that devastates every town and neighbourhood in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Britain where it plants a store. I urge you to watch Robert Greenwald’s famed 2005 documentary ‘Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price‘ to understand why cheap and convenient are adjectives of condemnation, not praise.

Yes, Wal-Mart is cheap. CEO Lee Scott’s statement in the 2008 annual report is so obsessive about prices that he sounds like Howard Hughes on germs or Lou Dobbs on Mexicans. Here’s a sampling of his phrases: “affordable, money-saving, price-leading, price-reduced, dollar-saving, budget-stretching, ends-meeting, driving down costs, reducing costs, saving money, spending less, low prices, price-leading, reduce prices, less money, save money, on par with price, lower costs.” That’s not cheap, that’s psychotic.

I love to shop and I do shop carefully. But as I wander around Wal-Mart, it becomes apparent that their prices are low because much of their merchandise is — cheap. Whatever happened to “well-made” or “worthwhile”? Their own-brand clothing, curiously called “George,” is made of thin fabric harsh on my fingertips, badly shaped and sewn, and style-free. Gap and H&M sell cheap clothes too, but they aren’t this badly constructed, and those two chains make an effort at rendering the customer physically appealing to fellow human beings. George clothing actively works in the other direction.

(…)

So instead of walking down to main street for a shovel, nail gun, ice cream, prescriptions, head of lettuce, shrubbery, can of paint or pair of deck shoes, everyone will drive to Wal-Mart and come back with disposable things bought for next to nothing from dingy foreign factories. We will do this at a hidden cost to clean air, precious fuel, neighbours’ basements, owners and employees of smaller stores, wages (Wal-Mart pays rock-bottom and keeps people part-time for years), the view of Lake Ontario, tax revenue, Canadian-owned manufacturers, esthetics and fitness.

Read the rest of this great article here.

Canadian Politics make it to the Daily Show: Are we in that much trouble?

Apparently not, since the jokes seemed to centre mostly on the fact that our politics (language and streets) are so much cleaner than those in the States, and the fact that the Queen of England still plays a (more or less) active role in our politics.

December 8th’s edition of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart started with a segment titled “Provinces in Peril: Indecision Oh-Eh” that he kicked off with a warning to his viewers: “Don’t look up!”. He went on to explain that Canadians are “facing [our] greatest challenge since [our] controversial decision to re-shape bacon”.

He went on to explain how Stephen Harper, rather than face a vote of non-confidence in Parliament, chose to dissolve it rather than having his government toppled, something that shocked Jon Stewart.

“Force him from office? You can do that?” he asked the camera, looking absolutely stunned (in a typical, comical Stewart kind of way). His voice then drops: “Because we’ve had no confidence in our guy for quite some time now. And he’s taking forever to leave!”

Referring to Bush’s incredibly low approval ratings in the last couple of years (according to CNN, it currently stands at 28%, which isn’t a record, while his disapproval rating, at 71%, is a sad record), Jon Stewart wonders about how our Prime Minister is facing such a turmoil when his rating is in the high forties. “I mean, this guy [Harper]? His approval rating is 46 per cent and they’re trying to kick him out? You know what we call a 46 per cent approval rating down here? President Clinton!”

Exhibiting a more thorough understanding of the situation than many Canadians around me have, Stewart explained how Harper dodged the vote by suspending Parliament. This wasn’t without consequence, since Harper had to endure the wrath of an ‘outraged [Canadian] citizenry who took to [our] incredibly tidy streets.’

Apparently, it wasn’t only the tidiness of our streets and the relative calm of protesters that surprised Stewart; it’s also the relative politeness of our protesters, one of whom called out: “What are you afraid of, Sir?” to which Jon Stewart, incredulous, wondered: “Sir? You’re heckling him! It’s not a job interview! […] Do you Canadians save all your obnoxious-ness for hockey games?”

To which I’d like to say in Montreal, no, we save some of it for driving, some of it to deal with our neighbor down south and the rest of it for hockey games.

Not knowing much about opposition leader Stéphane Dion’s politics, Stewart preferred joking about not knowing Céline Dion having a ‘sister’. A little lame, I know, but Stewart admits not knowing anything about his policies so he can’t tackle them. At least he’s being honest.

Stewart then went on to explain how, in response to the pact signed by the opposition leaders to hold a non-confidence vote, Harper held a press conference “in what appeared to be either a hailstorm or some type of snow globe” to announce that Parliament has been dissolved. And Stewart dared ask a question that has probably floated through Canadians’ heads since first meeting Harper: “What kind of magical creature’s hair doesn’t get messed up in a hailstorm?”

The segment was already pretty funny up to this point, but it got downright hilarious with the introduction of three special correspondents to discuss the role of the Queen, who has ‘actual power in Canada’.

First, Samantha Bee from Ottawa tells Jon Stewart that the last thing Americans would want is Canada as a ‘failed state’, which would make it a breeding ground for ‘really pissed-off ice road truckers’ (I was expecting another hockey joke, or a reference to maple syrup or Blackberries… a little disappointing comeback, I must admit). She goes on to say that Canadians, “in the pit of our despair, we reach out to our rock, which is none other than the Queen” (really? I tend to reach for the phone and call up a close friend, but that just might only be me).

To which Stewart admits that he has a hard time seeing Canadians as British – and that’s when John Oliver, straight from London, interrupts (and that’s London UK, for you Canadian-centric readers) defending England’s prestige of the days of yore and the role of the Queen. John Oliver has quite a scare when Jon Stewart let’s out that Americans aren’t paying the Queen for the use of the English language like Canadians are, but thankfully, Samantha Bee doesn’t catch on, and the revenues of England are protected.

But Aasif Mandvi from India couldn’t stand by without saying something, trying desperately to break England’s clutch on Canada. Mandvi tells Samantha to cut the cord and stop running to Mommy (i.e. the Queen) every time things get tough. To drive his point home, Mandvi puts things in perspective: even if India had traffics lights, which wouldn’t work because the streets are filled with cows, they feel sorry for us!

Not to be outdone, John Oliver retorts by telling Samantha that were Canadians to drop the Queen, that would make them American.

Mandvi retorts with “India’s independence gave us pride, and this is from a country that ships its water from Mexico. Don’t you want your country to be taken seriously?” (to which Samantha agrees it would be a nice change).

But John Oliver refuses to give up, taunting: “Taken seriously? Who are you going to put on your money? Brian Adams?”

Being promised with a visit from the Queen, Samantha chooses the ‘white guy’, thus ending the confrontation.

I know, I know, I try to stay away from line-by-line reviews, but this one was just too funny to not report most of it. Plus, it doesn’t take anything from watching it, which you should really do here. And while it is amusing and kind of comforting to know that we are still seen as ‘nice’ Canadians, we have to face the fact that, on many levels, things are not going that well in our country, and that we have been slowly heading south (pun intended). If we don’t act, we are going to be left with nothing else than jokes about the way we used to be.

So let’s make sure we have supply Americans with many more years of material for the Daily Show. It’s the ‘nice’ thing any good neighbour would do.

The Big Three: What is going to happen to Detroit?

Not matter what we think of the lousy administration and short-sightedness of its decision-maker, they won’t be the ones to pay if the Big Three implode. But support to give the Big Three money fades as reports of past errors come back to haunt them.

Here are a couple of such errors:

1. Hybrids – The Big Three let Honda and Toyota beat them to the punch a decade ago, then sat on the sidelines, arguing hybrids were too expensive, they wouldn’t sell, yada yada yada.
They were right. Hybrids were expensive. And they were slow to catch on. But the Japanese automakers showed patience, and they were rewarded. These days Toyota and Honda can’t build hybrids fast enough to meet demand and the Big Three are scrambling to catch up.
2. Electric vehicles – All of the automakers — including Honda (the EV+) and Toyota (the RAV4 EV) — are guilty of pulling the plug on EVs prematurely in the late 1990s, arguing the technology was too expensive, the batteries unproven and the demand for such cars nonexistent. But GM lost the most with the EV1 debacle. You can argue the car was entirely too expensive and way too advanced for its time — “The EV1 was a work of art,” one EV advocate told us. “And that was the problem.” — but the fact remains GM held the future in its hands and threw it away.
3. Sports Utility Vehicles – American Automakers relied entirely too much on SUVs to pad their bottom lines. Yes, they were dirt cheap to build and allowed Detroit to make mad money. But the over-reliance on SUVs made the Big Three so fat and lazy they couldn’t respond to — or couldn’t see — consumers’ sudden shift toward passenger cars. Japanese and European automakers cranked out a lot of SUVs themselves, but not at the expense of small and mid-size cars.

Read the rest of this article here.

Putting Humanity back in Arts: Introducing Tami

People who don’t write (other than for school essays and company memos) often think that there is only one way to write.

I beg to differ.

I know quite a few writers and none of us have the exact same way of writing. Also, some writers have different ways of writing depending on what they are writing for and where the idea came from.

When I write, I often see words, pieces of sentences and scene ideas floating around within the bubble of a general idea. My challenge isn’t finding what to write about; quite the contrary, I have two binders full of plots and storylines that I only need time to write about (I doubt I ever will; the binder tend to multiply a lot faster than any human can write).

The challenge for me comes in setting that idea’s foundation then building it up into a story (or, in the case of this blog, into a post). That nebulous cloud of words, sentences and ideas is quite large, and it is only when I have strung them together that they turn into a beautiful story (or so I like to think). Of all the various ways I have of writing, this is my preferred one (which made NaNoWriMo all the harder for me) and makes it only logical that I love beading.

2I was immediately taken with the beauty and craftsmanship of the necklaces Tami makes. However much I love beading, I have never been able to turn into reality the visions of gloriously beautiful necklaces that float in my head. But here was someone who had as much ease with beads as I have with words. And apparently, she works in almost the same way: the final product is already a nebulous image in her mind when she starts, inspired by the beads she has underhand. As she works, the idea becomes reality, adapting to the realities of beading.

Tami’s work area is a colourful, inspiring array of beads neatly organised in rows and rows of little boxes. The more delicate ones, made of glass, are nestled on beds of cotton, making them seem even more delicate. In the middle lies a couple of creations currently under construction; just like I tend to work on three or four different pieces at the same time, Tami doesn’t focus on one thing at a time.

Which is ironic, because beading helps Tami focus; this isn’t something unusual, as the relaxing motions and creativity behind beading have been related for centuries to prayer and mediation. Amongst other, beading is a big part of Native Culture in Canada and the Unites States. A very old craft, beads have been made all over the word using very different materials: from precious to semi-precious stones all the way to sea shells and bones.

“Beaded items for religious purposes are either made personally (medicine pouch, pipe bag), or given by relatives, not bought or sold. Beadwork on such items often reminds the owner of a personal vision or sign or the meaning of a personal name, it is not only to make them beautiful. However, making sacred objects beautiful, especially by taking a lot of time and care, shows honor and respect to the spiritual powers, not only through words and feelings, but through artistry and work. This reality – the work done as itself a prayer or vow — underlies and strengthens ceremonial activities. (source: here) http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art/beads/art_bead.html

3One of my friends, a nurse, worked for awhile with children suffering from various psychiatric disorders. He told me more than once of the calming influence of many arts and crafts on the children, and how he was able to connect with them during such soothing, creative sessions.

One of his preferred crafts is beading, which he regularly practices with his older patients. He teaches his young protégés to bead to a certain rhythm. His patients often already resorted to soothing rhythmic motions in times of duress.

Would it be too idealistic to say that beading could be yet another tool used to help carry forward an ever advancing civilization? Native Americans use beading not only as a creative outlet, but also as a meditative tool. They create beautiful art with their hands and, through the meditation, create beautiful peace in their souls. If beading can be used like that, then wouldn’t it help angry, confused, scared people to become at peace, to know what they should do and to gain the courage to take the next step, however small it might be? And couldn’t this bring about a healthier generation of humans who will be able to work together to deal with age-old problems?

In Native tradition, beading enhances prayer and is a meditative process. When used so, Tami and others beading can also use beading not only as a creative outlet, but also and especially as a meditative process. It helps concretely organise abstract, mixed up thoughts.

Seen in this light, beading becomes a lot more than making pretty necklaces. Not only do Tami’s necklaces help us learn to appreciate once again the joys of handmade crafts (as opposed to the mass produced necklaces everyone seems to be wearing nowadays), but they become a symbol of the slow yet steady process humanity could make in putting together the ideas behind the concept of piece which had been floating around long enough for us to make it a reality.