The needs of the many

I got thinking about Star Trek on the walk home from the bus stop yesterday. To be specific, I got thinking about a single line uttered by Spock in The Wrath of Khan. Chances are, even the non-trekkies will recognize this one (make sure your speakers are on!):

I haven’t come across many Spocks in my lifetime. That is, I haven’t come across many people who are genuinely able to set aside their own self-interest and sacrifice themselves completely for the sake of the “many.” I’m not saying that people can’t be altruistic, but I think there is a lot of pseudo-self-sacrifice–a  lot of “doing for others” that, if we really dug down deeply and honestly into our underlying motivations, we would have to admit was serving a personal need as much as, and sometimes even more than, it was helping others.

Because we want to feel that we are doing good, it’s easy to get caught up in busily doing what we think is needed, without stepping back to figure out whether the real needs are actually something quite different. I’ve seen this phenomenon in every organization I’ve belonged to. At some point in time, someone comes up with a solution to a genuine problem. The solution becomes codified into policies and procedures. And eventually it becomes that mighty monolith: THE WAY WE DO THINGS HERE. And no one considers that maybe there are new problems to be solved– different needs to be met–  emerging realities that warrant different actions.

manyPart of the problem is that the “many” are a rather abstract lot, and they are notoriously bad at coming to any sort of consensus about what exactly their needs are. It’s difficult for a faceless and nebulous set of communal needs to compete with the compelling and concrete needs that I truck around with me daily.  The logic goes something like this: I know what I need, because I need it, and therefore everyone must need the same thing. So I’m going to assume that I know what you need and knock myself out giving it to you, whether you all need it or not.

But as Spock would be quick to point out, that logic is faulty. I’m not you, and if I really want to “do good” in the world, I need to look outside of myself long enough to see what “the many” really need.  And that’s hard, because as soon as I do that, I find myself in all sorts of uncomfortable territory. It might mean that I have to do something new. It might mean that I have to let go of something I like. It might be risky. Perhaps not quite as risky as locking myself in a room with a melting down reactor core. Perhaps it just feels that way.

oneI want to believe that in the moment of truth I can set aside my own self interest and do the right thing, even when I know the right thing might cause me, or someone else, some short term pain. Even when doing it violates my own singular need for comfort and safety. Even when it would be so much easier to seek refuge in the status quo.

Because when you get right down to it, the status quo only seems easier because it’s familiar. The truth is, the one (or the few) stubbornly clinging to the status quo in the face of inevitable change is expending a lot of effort to stand still.

Many is the new Domestic

Note sure what the folks over at the Daily Prompt were smoking this morning! Today’s suggestion is: Click over to your favorite blog, and pick out the 4th and 14th words (that aren’t “the” or “an”). Drop them into this phrase:

“_____ is the new _____.”

There’s your post title. Now write!

Some days I think it would be nice to come home and curl up in a box.
Some days I think it would be nice to come home and curl up in a box.

I’ve had a long day. First day back at work after three months leave. No easing back in. I decided the only way to quit the quiet DOMESTIC life of my leave of absence was cold turkey. It’s not as though my job is physically taxing like, say, hanging drywall. But it can be mentally exhausting. Today it was that in spades. You know those days when you aren’t sure you really want to be a grownup? Then I made a dash after work to visit an elderly friend who is in hospital recovering from major surgery. Then another dash to pick up my daughter. And, well, I’m tired.

And now the flying devil creatures in Daily Promptland are asking me to choose my favourite (stubbornly spelled the Canadian way) blog! What next? Are you going to ask me which of my children I love the most? What kind of loser do you take me for?

My “favourite” blog is a moving target. My taste is very eclectic. Maybe I’m fickle.  But seriously, I’m hard pressed to choose which was my favourite blog of the last 24 hours, let along my favourite blog period! The options are too luscious, the well too deep!

But in spite of my fatigue, and in spite of my pique over today’s prompt, I won’t put off my next blog post until Saturday. I refuse to be beaten by this devilish prompt! So I cheated. I seeded my post with links to MANY of my favourites-of-the-moment. Not an exhaustive list by any means, but as good a representative smattering as you’re going to get on the few brain cells left at my disposal this evening.

I tend to prefer to write my titles at the conclusion of the writing process, after I’ve figured out what it was I had to say. So yes, I cheated again. I found the title in another of my current favourites, after writing out most of my little snit, and couldn’t believe my good fortune at how apt it was.

Feeling at home in the vast and varied blogosphere. Many is the new domestic.

Slow Down

Today’s Daily Prompt poses: Your entire community — however you define that; your hometown, your neighborhood, your family, your colleagues — is guaranteed to read your blog tomorrow. Write the post you’d like them all to see.

bank 1Although, as this blogger observes, I thought that’s what I was doing already, this one did give me pause. And here’s why—

This morning I decided to check out another walking venue that I haven’t  seen in many years. South of the city, along the same wiggly Seine River that winds past the old monastery, is a wooded area called La Barrière Park. It’s at least 25 years since I last set foot in this park. Then, I was a young teacher supervising a school picnic, surrounded by noisy teenagers. Today, aside from the maintenance crew and a couple of dog walkers, I pretty much had the place to myself.

But before that I got lost. To get to the park I had to drive through a new development that has been going up in the south end of the city. There are roads that are so new they aren’t on my map. And there are no meaningful landmarks—just acres and acres of huge, beige and grey boxes. At one point I ended up on a brand new stretch of road that ended abruptly in a massive dirt field. I came very close to just giving up and backtracking my way to a more familiar haunt, when suddenly I found myself on what I knew to be the right road, going in the right direction. Phew.

When I finally found my way into the park, I left my car alone in the parking lot and set out along  a rough maintenance road, past the picnic shelters and the baseball diamonds, over a solid footbridge, and into the woods.

pathThe forest was quiet. The sound of fallen leaves crunching softly beneath my shoes was occasionally punctuated by the rustle of a bird or squirrel moving through the branches above. The path was wide and well-maintained, but in such a way that it didn’t feel like a human construction. The only litter on the forest floor was the natural forest litter of fallen trees and broken branches, many of which were thick with moss. In one spot someone had perched a split log atop two adjoining tree stumps to fashion a primitive bench.

Something about the forest felt safe. Safer, I realized, than I felt driving around lost in the new subdivision.

Tomorrow is the last day of my leave. Monday I will be back at work. Back in the “real world” after many days spent walking and thinking and writing. It’s time to go back; the muscles around my new hip feel strong and my leg feels stable. When I step on the bus on Monday morning I won’t be carrying a cane.

forestBut I’m going to miss the slow rhythm of these days. I know I am going to have to fight to maintain the sense of equilibrium that I have found with all this time to squander. I’m going to have to be very intentional about making time to walk in the woods. Time to think. Time to write.

And the thing that bothers me most is that as a community we seem to accept that that will be the case. We accept that life is hectic. We accept that “busy” is the norm.

I want to continue to challenge that notion as my own “busy-ness” ramps up again in the coming weeks. I am determined to keep wandering in the woods, and not to get lost among the boxes.

And I want to challenge you, my community, to slow down. And go for a walk in the woods.

seine 2

Other People’s Junk: part 2

Yes I said lizard. As houseguests go he's pretty easy. He brings his own house with him, and he's not much of a partier.
Yes I said lizard. As houseguests go he’s pretty chill. He brings his own house with him, and he’s not much of a partier.

I have houseguests. My eldest daughter, her cat, and her lizard (and the enormous, awkward-to-transport tank he lives in) have taken up residence in my living room for a few days while her building is treated for bedbugs. Thankfully we have found no evidence of the wee beasties in her apartment. But they have been spotted somewhere on the premises, and so all the apartments have to be treated.

Which meant a full page of instructions on how to prepare for the big event (moving furniture out from the walls, laundering and bagging all bedding, lifting things off the floor, etc.) It was a lot of work. By Sunday evening the three washing machines shared by 40 apartment units had been in overdrive all weekend, and the dumpster in the lane was overflowing from a whole building full of tenants using the enforced cleanup as an excuse to purge.

My daughter tossed out a stack of foam floor mats that she no longer used, and within minutes I watched in amazement as a man lifted them triumphantly from the dumpster and made off with them. All I could think was, “How does he know they aren’t carrying bugs?” Or perhaps he doesn’t care.


The information sheet from the rental agency explained oh so tactfully that tenants may have unwittingly brought the bugs in on items from garage sales—or dumpster picking. It’s acknowledged as a fact of life. We have regulars at my condo. One fellow cycles along the river trails that snake behind a series of apartment and condominium complexes, armed with a long pole that he uses to poke through the contents of the bins in our parking lot. Clearly he’s a pro.

My city has even come up with a genteel form of dumpster diving known as “Giveaway Weekend” when the city encourages us to leave unwanted but re-usable items on the curb with a sign labelling them as “free” for anyone to pick up. Savvy Giveaway Weekend “shoppers” know to be out early Saturday morning with trucks and vans to score the really good stuff. My sister managed to unload a refrigerator this way. I have a fantastic big umbrella plant that I picked up curbside a few years ago. But my best “Giveaway” score was the little wooden desk that I picked up from a neighbour, polished up and used for three years, and then sold for $25 (how’s that for return on investment?!)

Unfortunately, as much of a bargain hound as I am, the spectre of bedbugs means that there are lots of items I would never dare pick up or even buy secondhand unless I knew everything there was to know about its history.

But clearly not everyone is quite so discriminating.

It’s complicated, though. I am fully aware that if I absolutely needed to replace my bed or sofa tomorrow I would have the resources to do so without scrounging one of questionable provenance. I am equally aware that for the fellow who looked so delighted to claim my daughter’s castoffs, those scruffy cat-scratched floor mats may well be his bed now. I feel uncomfortable criticizing anyone who needs to depend on other people’s garbage for their essentials.

On the other hand, my daughter has been displaced from her home because someone in her building failed to pay attention to our fair city’s well-publicized bedbug precautions. It’s true that she and her pets have a safe and welcoming place to crash for a few days, but— as she asked me mid-cleanup yesterday—what happens to the tenants who don’t have anywhere else to go?

And this is why I find the whole thing so complex. A whole building full of tenants has had their lives disrupted because someone didn’t know better. Or didn’t care. Or didn’t have a choice?

Whatever the story is, and we will never know, the fact is that none of us exists without affecting other people, whether we know we are doing it or not. And it’s sometimes difficult to know when the thing you are doing because you feel the need to do it is negatively impacting your neighbour.

garden signAt least whoever brought in the bedbugs in the first place is being equally inconvenienced. It’s another story over in the community garden near my home, where signs have been posted that clearly instruct the gardeners to have their plots cleared by October 4th for tilling. Today, three days after the deadline, there are several sections that have not been cleared. Corn stalks stand defiantly behind the signposts bearing the clean-up instructions, and in some sections there are mountainous tangles of cucumber and squash vines.

Someone is going to be inconvenienced by this failure to follow the rules, but in this case it is likely not going to be the ones who wouldn’t clean up their plot on time. (Or couldn’t—because part of me always wants to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe something terrible and unforeseen prevented them from getting to the garden last week…)

But now I’m just making excuses for them. The truth is that if you are the one stuck cleaning up someone else’s mess it’s just as much work whether they wouldn’t or couldn’t—whether they didn’t know or didn’t care.

It’s a good reminder that as long as I am blessed to have choices, I hope I make the choices that touch my neighbours’ lives as positively as possible —my global neighbours as well as my nearby ones. While I’m cleaning up other people’s junk, I need to reflect on where I’m depositing my own junk. And who is getting stuck with cleaning it up.

It’s complicated.

I go walking: South

(Part 2 in a series of reflections based on striking out from home in each of the four directions.)

grassland signTo the south lie the paved bike trails of the Bishop Grandin Greenway. The majority of these pathways run east/west, parallel to the freeway, but I hook up with them briefly where they take me from the end of the dike, under the bridge, and towards the university campus.  Along the way, I pass by a stretch of riverbank that has been designated as a “Grassland Naturalization Area.” Like the paved trails, the sign is a reminder that I am able to enjoy my riverbank walks because of some careful and deliberate planning.

It takes me a little over ten minutes to get from my door to the golf course gate. The golf course that isn’t a golf course any more. The University of Manitoba has acquired the land, and is taking a slow, measured approach to developing it. The community has been promised that, for the first few years, the land will be left untouched to be used as a public park. The old golf course buildings stand abandoned, and a maze of trails criss-crosses the space, along the river, through the trees. Some of these trails have been “built” and represent the path that the golfers would have taken around the property, but the trails I like are the more recent ones that have been created by a silent consensus of feet and bicycle tires.

The land is sparsely populated by students using it as a short cut to the campus, walkers like me, birds, squirrels and deer. Yes deer, here in the middle of the city. The deer have held their ground in spite of two years of stadium construction just across the road.

UM signThe university has launched an international design competition for mixed-use development of the space. While there is always an element of controversy around any land development initiative, I have to say I like what I’ve seen so far. In particular, I like that their design objectives include keeping the riverbank as a public space. I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on the development initiative, and learned that, in preparing the detailed specifications for the design competition, one of the things the university did was plot the GPS coordinates of all the trees on the property. They will be looking for design concepts that maintain existing mature trees. I like that too.

I’m a little concerned about the deer, however. It’s hard to say at this point if there will be a place for them in the new planned community. But for now they are happy to claim this bit of paradise as home.  The young ones skitter past and duck into the weeds along the bank, but the older ones are apt to stand in the middle of the field and stare you down, as if to say “I don’t mind you here as long as you’re  just passing through, but don’t get any funny ideas…”

once upon a golf course...
once upon a golf course…