Thursday, December 08, 2016

U.S. is getting sicker in all ways

I find my eyes turned southward more often these days, hardly surprising given that each day brings some new and usually revolting turn of events in the troubled U.S. (Today: Donald Trump picks Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whose state is currently suing the Environmental Protection Agency, to head the EPA).

But today's news brought unsettling news of another kind for Americans: Their life expectancy fell in 2015 for the first time in more than 20 years. And what marks this decline as different from the last one in 1993 is that it came after three years of flat-lined life expectancy - unusual in itself given that in the last 50 years, U.S. life expectancy has tended up until now to increase each year.

Overall life expectancy is now 78.8 in the U.S. Break that 0.1 per cent drop down and what it means in real terms is that Americans are now living one month less on average - and if they're men, two months less.

While the thought of living one month less may not seem like a troubling detail in the grand scheme of a life, it's the demographic trends and the  kinds of things that are killing Americans that ought to be sending up the red flags. Death rates have risen for eight of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.: Heart disease (0.9% rise), chronic lower respiratory diseases (2.7%), unintentional injuries (6.7%), stroke (3%), Alzheimer's disease (15.7%), diabetes (1.9%), kidney disease (1.5%) and suicide (2.3%).

A number of those eight causes are related to health conditions that have been on the rise year after year in the States. Diabetes rates are soaring; some 29 million Americans now have the chronic disease - more than nine per cent of the population - compared to 1.6 million in 1958. More than 95 per cent of those cases involve Type 2 diabetes, which is caused by lifestyle-related issues such as obesity and insufficient exercise.

Stroke rates have fallen among older Americans, but risen among younger ones. Americans born between 1965-74 - Generation X - have a 43 per cent higher chance of having a stroke than do Americans born 20 years earlier (1945-54) during what health researchers have dubbed "The Golden Generation."

And if all that isn't alarming enough, 2015 also brought a startling 11.4 per cent rise in accidental deaths of babies under the age of one. The majority died due to suffocation or accidental strangulation in their beds. In the BBC piece I linked to higher in this post, the medical director at Northwell Health's Huntington Hospital in New York said accidental deaths include car crashes, falls, suffocation and fires, but linked the rise in accidental infant deaths to "social stressors" such as financial pressures and addiction.

"The dramatic upswing in the use of opiates and narcotic use across our country is potentially a big factor in driving a phenomenon like accidental injury," he said. Like Canada, the U.S. has seen a staggering rise in opiate use and overdose deaths in the last few years, with a record 28,000 Americans dead from opiate overdoses in 2014 alone. (And check out the rising number of deaths from prescription drugs - frightening.)

The depth of the problems become even clearer when you look at how American health compares to health in other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) It now ranks 28th out of 45 countries - below the Czech Republic, Chile and Costa Rica.

Sadly, all the wealth in the world can't buy the U.S. out of this crisis. Its health-care costs per capita are among the highest in the world at $9,403, more than double the OECD average of $4,735. Next time someone tries to pitch you on the benefits of a privatized health-care system, remind them of that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Is the lure of authoritarianism what got Trump elected?

I'm feeling rattled by Facebook, no longer sure if there's any point in sharing serious things there. It was the Trump election that did me in - things just got too weird. But then I see a story like this and I want to share it with people, because it's so damn interesting, so what can I do? When I want to be able to find something that I think is important enough that I'll probably want to track it down later when it's all coming true, I post it here.

The March 2016 piece in Vox  posits the theory that the U.S. is experiencing a rise in authoritarianism among its citizens, and that a guy like Donald Trump was pretty much the dream candidate for a period in time when this authoritarian tendency happens to be in full bloom.

"Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force,"notes the article. 

"They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians' fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms. A candidate like Donald Trump."

As you'll see in the piece, the people trying to figure out how to measure degrees of authoritarianism went with parenting questions. I've got no clue whether that's a valid comparison, but at the very least it does sort respondents into categories of people who think one way or the other. They're quite profound questions when you get to thinking about how you might answer them yourself as a parent.

Read the piece and weep, I guess. Personally, I'd hoped human rights, mutual respect and informed decision-making would get a longer run at being important issues, but things are not looking good for that line of thinking. I'm still struggling to know what to do about any of this, other than to talk about it with literally every person I've come in contact with since Trump got elected. I'm desperate to find pieces that help me understand at least a little more about how this can be happening, and this Vox piece was one of them. 



Saturday, November 05, 2016

Information dumps as a tool to smother dissent



    This feels like an important piece. It's a New York Times commentary from Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science who writes for the Times on occasion.
    Her point is that massive information dumps like the ones WikiLeaks is known for, one of which is currently making life miserable for U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, only look like strikes for freedom. In fact, they are tools for smothering dissent, says Tufekci. 
    "This method is so common in Russia and the former Soviet states that it has a name: kompromat, releasing compromising material against political opponents," she writes.
    "Emails of dissidents are hacked, their houses bugged, the activities in their bedrooms videotaped, and the material made public to embarrass and intimidate people whose politics displeases the powerful. Kompromat does not have to go after every single dissident to work: If you know that getting near politics means that your personal privacy may be destroyed, you will understandably stay away."
     Tufecki also notes the vast amount of collateral damage that a massive information dump causes. It's not just Hillary Clinton who is suffering. "Demanding transparency from the powerful is not a right to see every single private email anyone in a position of power ever sent or received. WikiLeaks, for example, gleefully tweeted to its millions of followers that a Clinton Foundation employee had attempted suicide; news outlets repeated the report."
     So yes, we live in an age where information is "free" in unprecedented ways. But what information? Made public by who, and for what purpose? Say what you will about mainstream media, but they did used to pay attention to such things. The wild and woolly world of wide-open public journalism has no such ethical base. 


Monday, October 17, 2016

The highs and lows of social media, as experienced through the issue I care most about

 
Social media is an interesting beast, most particularly for how each form appeals and responds to users in entirely different ways. This is fascinating stuff for us communications types.
     I’ve found kindred spirits on all three of the platforms I like best – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But they’re not the same kindred spirits. The people I want to know and connect with on one platform are not the same ones I want to connect with on others. The feel of each platform and the reasons for using them are so very different.
    Facebook, for instance, is the place where I’m most likely to connect with my real friends and family. It’s where I share photos of my grandkids, keep up-to-date on which of my acquaintances or cousins or whoever has gone travelling in Italy, had an injury, lost somebody close to them, taken their dog walking someplace cool, and so on – kind of like a virtual coffee shop for catching up with pals across time and distance on a personal level.
    What it’s significantly less good for, however, is for engaging people on the issue I care most about. I can draw 200 or more “likes” for a particularly charming photo of a dog we’re looking after or a new profile picture, but my posts about sex workers’ rights – the issue I feel most passionately about these days – routinely fare very poorly. I have a few Facebook friends who share my passion and can be counted on to like and share my sex-work-related posts, but essentially I’m preaching to the choir.
    A very small choir.
    I’m guessing my inability to connect around sex work on Facebook is because on that medium, I mostly interact with people I actually know, or we at least move in similar social circles. But while we may know each other in real life, that clearly doesn't mean that we share the same philosophies or passions. So do I give up trying to get the people I know on Facebook to care about sex workers' rights, or stubbornly keep posting in the hopes that eventually some will? The big question.
    I resisted Twitter for a long time, unconvinced that I needed a whole lot of 140-character thoughts from random people cluttering up my day. Oh, how wrong I was. Twitter is now a favourite of mine.
From a staying-current perspective, it’s much like having hundreds of people out scouring the planet on your behalf for interesting news and developments (presuming you’re following the right people and organizations). The hashtag system also means you can easily find the latest tweets pertinent to the issues you care about.
    Few of the people I’m friends with on Facebook appear to be active on Twitter, so I’ve found a whole other community there - one that stretches around the world, loves a good debate over tough issues, and interacts with other members of their “community” based on the issues they tweet about rather than any personal connection.
    Because the Twitter connection is around issues rather than friendship, I decided from the start that I would concentrate on tweeting about sex workers’ rights. I jump in on other issues every now and again, but I’d say that 90 per cent of my Twitter use is related to sex workers’ rights. Twitter has turned out to be totally amazing for connecting to like-minded souls on that issue.
    Yes, it does pose that preaching-to-the-choir problem. But on the upside, being among an entire world of people who think like me on this one keeps me hopeful and engaged on those dark days when you think, good grief, why can’t people get this? My fellow tweeters also keep me so clued-in on everything that’s happening around the world for sex workers’ rights that it makes me a much better informed activist and advocate for the rare times when I can actually catch the ear of the uninterested and possibly hostile majority.
    Would I post a grandchild photo on Twitter, or a pretty scene from my morning walk? Nope. I doubt that any of my Twitter followers give a hoot about how many grandchildren I have, and they definitely don’t want to see what I had for lunch yesterday. But I feel the same way about those I follow, too, so it all works out nicely. We don’t want to be friends, we want to be comrades in arms.
    Then there’s Instagram. I resisted this one for even longer, but this year decided I wanted to see how non-profit organizations were using it.  I quickly became an enthusiast of the form for personal use, though remain skeptical of its effectiveness for non-profits unless they’re skilled at telling their stories via powerful photos with very few words. (Humans of New York style.)
    But as a medium for sharing photos of the weird, wonderful and breathtaking scenes one might see in the course of an ordinary day, it’s really fun.
    Once again, I’ve found myself resistant to automatically following the same people I’m connected to on Facebook, as much as Instagram encourages me to do so. I don’t want to repeat my Facebook experience; I’m looking for something different from Instagram.  That said, I’ve sometimes seen a totally different side to some Facebook friends who I now follow on Instagram, and who also get that there are distinct reasons for choosing one or the other medium.
    Wearing my strategic-communications hat, this is what it all comes down to for me:

  • Use Facebook to connect with real friends and allies in warm and fuzzy ways, but don’t count on it to drive issues forward or effectively challenge societal assumptions. Useful for calling out people to events, but I suspect you are still only calling out to the people who probably would have come anyway. As an aside, I also wouldn’t advise using Facebook as your main news platform, because people use the craziest sources and are very lax in checking whether the stories they share are real and recent, or six years old and virtually fiction
  • Use Twitter to find great news from around the world that you care about by following people and organizations that know how to find legitimate and dependable sources. Pick an issue or theme that you want to specialize in so that people interested in the same things can follow you, and be equally stringent about your own sources. Find the hot hashtags for your issue and use them religiously to build followers
  • Use Instagram to share interesting photos with other people who also like looking at and sharing interesting photos. Sure, you can use the medium to share personal photos with your family and friends, but for broader use remember that you’re going to be up against a world of staggeringly compelling photos if you hope to get noticed.
  • If aiming to raise awareness for a cause or issue via Instagram, ditch the inspirational memes and follow the lead of the Humans of New York project, which in my mind leads the micro-story format with their brilliant photos and minimal writing.
  • Write blogs when you really need to say something. Not only do blogs give you more room and create a permanent, searchable space for your thoughts, they provide those all-important links for sharing on all your other social-media platforms. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Squeeze 'em until it hurts: The hostile takeover of the average air traveller experience


     I love almost everything about a life with lots of travel in it. But the modern-day airport and flying experience is one notable exception.
     I’m just back from flights in and out of Orlando, Florida, where I went for two weeks to visit family. I've been travelling quite a bit these past five years, and what becomes clearer with each passing flight is that the air industry service model is to slowly increase our suffering to the point that we'll pay them to make it stop.
    While I admire how the industry whips us around the world with impressive efficiency, its view of us as widgets to be profited from rather than flesh-and-blood customers is becoming increasingly transparent.
     I get that it’s a tough management challenge to safely move so many people to so many destinations every day. Some 3.5 billion travellers passed through the world’s airports in 2015. But that hardly justifies a business model built on the concept of deliberately eroding basic customer service so that your customers eventually feel miserable enough to pay for what they once got for free.
     Whether it’s about shivering in a sub-zero economy cabin or paying $25 each way just to check your only bag, I can’t shake this feeling that rather than being motivated by the desire to provide me with the optimal customer experience, what actually motivates the industry is discovering new ways to make me into a more efficient and profitable widget. Even the once largely democratic act of boarding the plane has been turned into a profit-making vehicle, with the industry constantly introducing new ways to lure travellers into paying to jump the line.
     A quick review of the typical airport experience based on my August 29 and September 12 flights, to make my case:
·        Uncomfortable seats. Your butt’s going to hurt, your legs are going to twitch, and your arms are going to cramp from trying to keep yourself from touching the passenger next to you. Unless you’re willing to pay for a better seat – what we long-time flyers used to know as “normal” leg room has now become a premium to be paid for – expect to feel cramped, jostled, and forced into unpleasant intimacies with strangers. If money’s no object, you might buy yourself one of those really great seats that the rest of us can only gaze upon longingly on the way to steerage, where everybody enjoys roomy lazy-boys and quaffs free booze and warm almonds. But most of us non-rich people tend to opt for the suffering. Yes, theatres and arenas also charge a price for premium seats, but for me it’s the physical discomfort of the cheap seats that really distinguishes the airline industry in this category.

·         Unfair baggage policies. Once, you could check two bags for free. Then one. Now, none. I just paid $50 so that my one bag could accompany me to Orlando and back. And then you sit in the cabin watching people stuffing increasingly enormous and ludicrous “carry-on” bags into those weary looking overhead bins, and a thinking person such as myself just might go, hey, WTF, does the industry truly not see how unpleasant they’re making it for us just to carry our stuff while we travel?

·         Food. Not even a decade ago, the airline industries fed you a meal at mealtime. It wasn’t a particularly terrific meal, but it was OK, and even came with a little bottle of wine if it was dinner. Oh, I laugh ruefully at the memory. Most of the airlines won’t even toss you a bag of bad pretzels anymore without charging, and those little bottles of wine are now $7. Not surprisingly, travellers responded by buying their own food in the airport to bring on the plane, but I now see that airport vendors have rather strangely countered this development by jacking up the price on anything that can be carried easily on a plane. I realized during this trip that at $12 and $14, airport sandwiches are now so costly that it makes more sense to buy a $7 sandwich on the plane. How clever – they've made me into a widget who will not only buy a $7 chicken wrap on the plane, but feel grateful for the chance. I wouldn’t want to suggest collusion between the airport and the airlines, but it sure looks that way from a customer perspective.

·         Security lineups. I know, we’ve all got a million anecdotes about this one, but it’s the big picture that gets me (that and the crazy lineups that screw up everything about the airport experience, including how much time you have to buy an exploitively priced sandwich). I mean, look at us: Taking off our shoes, belts and jackets; worrying whether we’ve got any trace of metal somewhere on our person; extracting our laptops to put them in bins; carrying only teeny-tiny bottles of creams and lotions in our carry-ons; shuffling through the naked x-ray machine without a word of complaint. Complaint, after all, just might get you sent into the back room with the scary looking dude wearing the latex gloves. It’s gotten so unpleasant that I’m now exploring the various pre-approved options for passing through security – which, of course, I will have to pay for. I can practically feel the industry using our largely baseless fears of security risks to reshape us as compliant widgets happy to pay for premium services if it means we get to skip at least some of the waits and humiliation.

·         In-flight entertainment. Let’s just say I was overjoyed to discover free movies and TV on both Air Canada flights to and from Toronto on my way south, but that’s not a common experience. I don’t want to romanticize the days when small, bad TVs dropped from the plane ceiling and you watched whatever the airline was showing that day, but there are fewer and fewer flights that provide any entertainment at all unless you pay for it. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, because bringing a good book is still free, but it still exemplifies the way airlines have found ways to package basic customer service as something you now have to pay for.

·         Cold. Freezing, freezing cold. The guy across the aisle from me was wearing one of those “slankets” yesterday to ward off the sub-zero chill and I was dead-envious. Sure, it’s minus-59 C. outside at 35,000 feet (Really. I saw it on the free TV screen.) but you can bet those high rollers in the comfy seats aren’t having to wrap themselves in fleece. Should you want one of those thin, small blankets of unpleasant material that the airlines used to provide for free, you now have to pay for it.

     I could go on. If there isn’t already a business-economics case study on the airline industry’s mastery at wringing profit out of what was once basic customer service, there ought to be. It’s not only a triumph of capitalism, it’s an example of how an industry can deliberately worsen the experience for their customers and not only get them to go along with it, but happily paying to stop the torment.
     Pack your slankets and homemade sandwiches, kids. They’re taking us for a ride. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Cranky in Paradise: How life in a fairly perfect place makes us angry


     I felt a quick flash of annoyance during a swim this past weekend at Thetis Lake when a group of young people on a raft of floaties cranked up their music a little too much. I then felt an immediate and sobering flash of alarm that a bunch of mild-mannered young people having a little fun in the sun had annoyed me.
     Could it be that Cranky Capital Regionite Syndrome is already upon me, a mere three months after arriving back on the Island? Please say it ain’t so.
     That pervasive air of easy annoyability that has always characterized CCRS in the region has been wonderful to get away from these last four and a half years in Central America. I thought I’d put it away forever at this point, but now I see that it has just been lying in wait for me back on the Island.
     It’s all got me thinking hard about what that cultural state of annoyance is really about. Why is it that I never got jangled by all the unpredictable happenings of daily life in Central America –noise, smells, traffic, gaping holes in the sidewalk, garbage, a constant sense that any crazy thing could happen at any moment – yet I come back here and find myself bugged by minor stuff?
     I’m not alone. I see motorists yelling out the window at each other over perceived infractions that not only didn’t cause an accident, but probably wouldn’t have even if imagined through to their low-impact conclusion. I see genuine fear in dog owners’ eyes when their unleashed dogs come bounding toward me and their owners brace for yet another tight-lipped lecture about leash laws and controlling your animal.
     What is it about this place? Why does it feel like we're looking for reasons to be angry at someone for something? My sense of it is that we have expectations of how our perfect day will go, and any breach in the plan feels like a personal affront. We’ve come to believe that with enough regulation, rule and law, citizens can be guaranteed a day where nothing untoward happens to them.
     Everybody’s going to drive exactly right. All bylaws will be observed. No dog poo will adhere to your shoe. The peaceful day at the lake you’re imagining will proceed exactly as you had hoped, and never mind that all the other people sharing the rocks with you have arrived at the same lake on the same day with completely different expectations of how the day will go.
      I guess with the bar set that high, we’re bound to end up cranky when life gets in the way of our elevated expectations for our day. Evidence of our pissed-offedness is everywhere: We shake our fists; bristle at our neighbour’s poor boulevard management; rap loudly on the hoods of cars stopped too close to a crosswalk; make angry phone calls to whatever regulatory body we think should be doing something.
     In countries like Honduras and Nicaragua, where my spouse and I have been doing long-term volunteer stints with Cuso International, there’s so little regulation that all bets of a perfect day are completely off. You don’t even bother thinking that way. You just step out the door and try to stay prepared for what might happen next. I’m not suggesting a war-zone scene or anything truly dangerous, just an environment that laughs at anyone’s expectations of a managed experience.
     The Victoria experience imagines that through regulation and law, we can control the environment to create a pleasant space for all, where unpleasant surprises are kept to a minimum. I think of it as a very European way of doing things. (I particularly appreciate such an ordered culture whenever I go bike-riding, an activity so risky in Central America that I wouldn’t dream of doing it there.)
     In Central America, it’s the environment that’s in control. You enter it knowing that you are about to have whatever experience it’s delivering that day, and that your wish to have a managed experience is neither here nor there.
     You’re going to walk past speakers so loud and distorted they’ll make your ears hurt. You’re going to step in garbage. You’re going to enter every crosswalk knowing it represents nothing more than white lines painted on pavement. You just have to hope that everything turns out OK, but there’s no saying that it will. (Guess that’s why religion is popular in such cultures.)
     And so you relax, genuinely relax, because you know there’s nothing you can do about any of it. Far from feeling hopeless, it feels freeing. You let go of every expectation and just go where the day takes you. A dozen things happen on your daily walk to work that would annoy the hell out of you back in Victoria, but you carry on without a flinch.
     I’m not saying that their way is better than ours. I do like that cars stop for me here in Victoria, and that green space is everywhere. I like not seeing garbage in the street. I like not having to dodge motorcycles driving down the sidewalk, or eye up every building I walk past for the possibility of a rusty metal pole sticking out of it at head height. I like knowing that if I wanted to, I could buy a small house on a quiet street with no fear that a five-storey, all-night disco might open next door in the following month.
    That probably means I’m not yet a full-on libertarian. But please, please, save me from CCRS. I don’t want to be that boring old lady railing against noisy kids at the lake and unleashed dogs on my street. I pledge here and now to stand on guard against any creeping sense of entitlement, to reject the (admittedly alluring) notion that the world ought to mould itself to my needs. Yes, my body is living in Victoria right now, but I will fight to keep my spirit Central American.
     Party on, gentle Thetis teens.


Friday, July 22, 2016

On the road again: My writing goes wandering

Delighted to have my writing appearing on other sites every now and then, the most recent examples being in the online B.C. newspaper The Tyee and as a guest blogger on the web site Naked Truth run by self-described "anarchist stripper mom" Annie Temple.

Hope you'll check them out! The piece I wrote for The Tyee grew out of some conversations I had this week about my own experiences with the people who these days reveal themselves as nasty internet trolls, like the kind who have shouted down actor Leslie Jones with the worst racist, misogynist, super-ugly stuff.

And the piece at Naked Truth builds on an earlier blog post I did about the deliberate campaign to silence adult sex workers by building a myth of trafficking and exploitation around them.

As you'll see in my piece - and I've included all my sources at the bottom of the piece to encourage readers to see a little more clearly - trafficking is being manipulated into a far bigger issue than it actually is. This is not being done as a means to draw scant public attention to an important issue, but rather as a political campaign against adult, consenting sex workers that's high on emotion and really low on fact.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

When good words go bad: The usurping of trafficking as a weapon against sex workers

Were I a cartoon character, I expect I'd have big red flags and maybe some small explosions coming out of my head these days after reading the Ontario government's news release this week about its big new anti-trafficking initiative.

I'm all for ending trafficking, of course. But the issue is increasingly emerging as some kind of stealth instrument for attacking people working in the sex industry, so I've learned to read every announcement of new anti-trafficking measures in a state of acute hyper-vigilance for what's really being said.

The Ontario news release offers some worthy examples of what I'm talking about. Scroll down to the "Quick Facts" in the release and you'll see this one:

"In many cases of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, trafficked persons may develop 'trauma bonds' with their traffickers, and may not view themselves as victims. As such, human trafficking is believed to be a vastly underreported crime."

Once upon a time, I would have read a paragraph like that and thought, yeah, that has the ring of truth. But having seen repeatedly just how expertly the movement that hates the existence of sex work uses the hot-button trafficking issue to whip up political support against the adult sex industry, I read it with a whole other set of eyes now. 

Let's consider "trauma bonds," for instance. That's a phrase coined 20 years ago by U.S. author Patrick Carnes to describe people who stay in exploitive relationships even when it's hurting them. It's roughly comparable as a term to Stockholm Syndrome, named for a 1973 bank robbery in Sweden in which several kidnapped bank employees grew emotionally attached to their kidnappers and even rejected help at one point so the kidnappers wouldn't get hurt. 

And yeah, those kinds of things exist. But when you're a jumpy sex-workers' rights type looking for where the next surprise assault is going to come from, you read a paragraph like that and see it as a weapon, the perfect tool for silencing sex workers still in the industry who might have something positive - or at least neutral - to say about their profession. It lays the groundwork to dismiss anything that a sex worker says in defence of the industry or his or her role in it as nothing more than the tragic thinking of someone too bonded to their captors to know how traumatized they are. 

It also lets trafficking be as big a problem as it needs to be for political purposes with no proof required, because we've established that it's "vastly underreported" and thus can't be judged on the seriously skimpy statistics that actually exist. It justifies vast sums and airy-fairy action plans for an issue that in Canada, represents 0.0004 per cent of the crimes reported annually in the country. (Sources here and here, but I did the math.) 

Add this to the fact that trafficking is already a crime in which authorities have the right to deem that you are trafficked even if you disagree, and you can see where this could go - especially in the hands of those who believe their right to loathe that sex work exists trumps the rights of sex workers to safer workplaces and basic rights. 

I browsed a lot of sites yesterday looking for hard facts about trafficking in Canada and the U.S., and came away unsettled by just how little facts there are in any of the discussions. Hyperbole and high emotion are the rule anytime that trafficking gets mentioned. When you get this many police initiatives, community groups, NGOs and government departments dependent on sustaining the trafficking narrative in order to keep the funding coming, the public conversation gets pretty dramatic, stats or not. 

I finally found some real numbers in the U.S. State Department's 2015 report on trafficking, which is way clearer about the figures on trafficking in Canada than anything I ever found among our own government's materials. As of 2015, there have been 85 convictions for trafficking-related crimes in the history of Canada, and one conviction - later overturned - under the Immigration Refugee and Protection Act. (Update as of July 7: Simon Fraser University Professor and researcher Tamara O'Doherty notes that  the majority of those convictions have not used Canada's trafficking laws, but rather the sex-work laws. The old "living off the avails" charge is now being publicly presented as being about trafficking.)

I'm a supporter of genuine initiatives that prevent and stop trafficking. Nobody should be exploited, abused, coerced or taken advantage of. If Canada is truly a "Tier 1" country when it comes to trafficking, let's address that. (Though I struggle to see how you could establish that with the scarce statistics that currently exist.)

But the word is being twisted. It's being stretched far beyond its boundaries to include people who are in no way trafficked, and hammered down tight over sex workers who dare to talk about rights rather than rescue. It has become a morality-based weapon to shut down any public conversation on sex worker rights by setting up workers as traumatized victims too messed up by their "captors" to be worth hearing from. 

Do I sound paranoid? Well, maybe you would be too if you'd seen for yourself just how fast and loose with the facts the anti-sexwork movement is, and how effective they are at convincing decision-makers to do the stupidest, most harmful things in the name of "ending demand" in the sex industry. It's a goal that no country in the world has ever achieved in the history of humanity, and it flies in the face of considerable research establishing decriminalization as the best approach for keeping sex workers safer. But hey, who needs research when you can have rhetoric?

This movement's moral judgment guides public policy around sex work in Canada and the U.S., increasing the risk of workplace violence for tens of thousands of Canadians. It denies them agency. The right to association, and normal interactions with police. Respect. A life without fear of exposure or arrest. Access to the basic tools of civil society such as small-claims court, employment tribunals, and human rights processes. 

So yeah, down with trafficking. But please understand that much of what passes for a discussion on trafficking these days is actually a calculated, highly emotional and very well-funded campaign that aims to make it publicly palatable to silence the voices of anyone in the sex industry who won't play victim. 

Further reading:

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Should I forget who I am, please give me the music to remind me

 
     If you haven’t already seen the 2014 documentary “Alive Inside,” fire up Netflix tonight and watch it. And as soon as it’s done and you’ve mopped up what might very well be a small bucket of sad-happy tears at all the lives changed by something so small, you just might want to get started on your own music playlist.
     The documentary is about a quest to give people back their music, most especially those living with dementia in U.S. care homes.
     The film opens with a scene of a near-comatose, non-verbal old man being outfitted with a headset and iPod loaded with all his favourite music, and his instant transformation into a wide-eyed, smiling guy singing along and recalling a dozen stories from his youth. (Maybe you were one of the 2 million people who viewed the clip on YouTube?)
     Anyway, it’s an amazing scene, but there are many more equally powerful ones in the full documentary. I felt like evangelizing after I saw the film. I wanted to start calling up care homes in Canada to ask if anyone was doing something similar, and how I could help. Anyone who ran into me in the days that followed had to put up with me exhorting them to see the film.
     And then I got thinking about what songs some good-hearted person might put on my own personal playlist should the day come when I can no longer remember who I am. That kind of freaked me out.
     I mean, what if the nice people looking after me presumed that because I was a teenager in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that’s the only kind of music I want to hear? I’m sure grooving to The Night Chicago Died or Sylvia's Mother would bring a smile to my face, but being stuck until I died in the memories of my early teenhood would be its own kind of nightmare.
     If the goal is to evoke the memories of a lifetime, who but me really knows what those songs are? I’m practically like the guy in the movie “High Fidelity,” with a different signature song for each profound memory. But it’s not like I share much of that with people as a general rule. (“Hey, honey, did I ever tell you that even 45 years on, hearing Me and Mrs. Jones makes me feel nostalgic for the boy who first broke my heart?”)
    Were I to be heading into the dark night of dementia, I’m pretty sure I’ll want all the memories I can get my hands on. Which means I’d best get my list together.
     I doubt that even my kids would think to include Blue Rodeo’s Rose-Coloured Glasses, which would deny me a magical day in my late 20s when my three young kids and I were singing that song at the top of our lungs after a day on Denman Island, and I suddenly felt free for the first time in my life. No one would know to put on Bob Seger’s version of  the Tom Waits song Blind Love, which would mean I’d never go back again to those three weeks in 2013 when the bar in the scary little Moskitia town I was staying in mixed that song in with its many narco-corridos, and I felt less lonely.
     Just When I Needed You Most – my son’s first heartbreak, and an important memory for me because I realized for the first time that my own heart would be breaking right along with my children’s as life brought its cruel lessons. Murder In The City  – the song that made us laugh through our anxiety as we headed into our big Honduras adventure. One Hand In My Pocket – me and a vanload of Grade 7 girls coming back from my daughter’s field trip, stereo cranked so loud that we proudly earned a look of disapproval from a fellow motorist at a red light.
     Bizarre Love Triangle, the stripped-down Frente! version that made me cry and cry in my early days with Paul because I thought he’d put it on a mixed tape he made for me as a hint about how he felt about our relationship (when in fact, he’d just recorded a whole Unplugged album that it happened to be on). Teddy Thompson’s I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye,  because it conjures a misty morning kayaking in Saanich Inlet when I was listening to it on my headphones as geese took flight, and I paddled through the breathlessly still waters thinking that if I were making a movie of that moment, that song would be perfect for the soundtrack. Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, because my grandsons (and Paul) still love retelling the story of me hearing that song on a road trip to Idaho and mishearing the chorus as, “Grew up on Mexican hockey.”
     At any rate, you get the picture. My personal playlist is deeply personal, and in all likelihood will span all the decades of my life. So yeah, please do throw some Beatles in there, but don’t forget Sweet Cherry Wine  or Which Way You Going, Billy? Don’t forget ACDC, because nothing puts me back on the road with the 2001 Tour de Rock quicker than the distinctive opening of Thunderstruck.  Don’t forget Barbie Girl, because I know I'm going to want to think back on the sweetly astounding sight of my very serious and quiet five-year-old grandson dancing like he was possessed when he first heard that song.
     May the gods trigger someone who loves me to go carefully through whatever musical catalogue I’m keeping at the point that I start to lose myself, and find a way to give it all to me.
     Even better, they could throw in some new songs that will be the background for whatever memories I’m laying down during those intense final months or years. Nothing would make me happier than to be listening to some cool new tune when the end finally comes, and thinking to myself, “Wow, what a perfect song to remember the moment I died.”
     Now go watch “Alive Inside.” And may your greatest-life-hits list be as fun to remember as mine has been.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Taking it to the max: The life of a serial obsessionist

  
   I’ve always been mad for the rush of falling head-first into new things. It’s a habit that made my love life a bit challenging for many years, but I’m much better at channeling that intensity into more constructive pursuits now that I’m older.
     Whatever it is that I’m falling into, it’s got all my attention.  
     If it's romance, you're going to feel profoundly treasured, at least for a little while (and much longer if you're Paul). If it’s a work project, I’m going to be your dream employee, because I will think non-stop about that project from a million different angles to get it as right as possible. 
     If it’s a recreational pursuit, just accept that I'm going to be beating on a duct-tape-covered tire in the basement for a couple of years (my taiko phase). Or bringing home yet another finch for the enormous and cacophonous bird enclosure in the living room window (caged-bird phase, although damn, the baby quails were cute). Or returning from the paint store with armloads of discounted spray paints in strange colours and textures (reviving-tired-furniture phase).
     My choices haven’t always been healthy, but they’ve definitely been diverse. Body-building; “mixed-tape” CDs for every occasion and everyone I knew; photo videos for every family member’s birthday; a rather odd period when I built and decorated giant picture frames and hung the unusual creations all over the house. When an obsession’s got me, you'll know it.
     The really big obsessions drive my career choices and my romantic relationships. The lesser ones guide how I use my free time. Most last four to five years. Some are shorter but no less intense, like when I got obsessed by the sheer wrongness and stupidity of the leaky-condo scandal and could barely talk about anything else for a year and a half.
     The intensity dies down eventually for me, but no obsession goes away completely. It just assumes a less high-profile position in the hierarchy of my interests.
     I still enjoy bird-watching, for instance, but no longer feel compelled to note every single cheep and who might be making it, or to keep a stack of eight or nine bird identification books always within arm’s reach.
     I still care passionately about issues around sex work, but I no longer pin unsuspecting people to the wall at social gatherings with heated rants about why they should give a shit (well, not as often, anyway). I can drive down a Vancouver residential street now without checking every apartment for signs of moisture ingress.
     Working in journalism and communications all these years has been a perfect career fit for my obsessiveness. The work is fundamentally a series of short-term projects that really suit an immersion approach. I was very happy at the Times Colonist for 15 years because there was no shortage of new civic or social issues waiting for me to obsess over them.
     My spare-time obsessions have been more variable. My current one, which is still very much in its early heady days, is learning how to accompany myself as I sing and play the accordion.
     I’ve been through several versions of this obsession – let’s call it “Jody Experiences Music.” Performing music and singing have been life staples since long before my pre-teen cousins and I first picked up brooms to "strum" in the Saskatoon PMQs where they were living and pretended to be The Beatles. But every new manifestation is a rush.
     Just on the music front alone, I’ve been a piano teacher; singer in a band; choir accompanist; taiko performer; house-party pianist; seniors’ home entertainer; amateur opera singer (that was a particularly weird one). I spent two summers not too long ago testing out busking in Victoria, but gave it up after I realized passers-by assumed me to be a sad and desperate homeless woman left to eke out a living with my accordion.
     I’ve secretly dreamed for decades of a gig playing music to an inattentive crowd in some sleepy beachside bar somewhere in Mexico, and suspect that my current accordion/singing obsession is related to that. Last week I also caught myself wondering about joining a choir again when we’re back in B.C., or starting a strange little band dedicated to playing surprising covers in surprising ways.
     Like I say, there are dark sides to my obsessions. Just ask Times Colonist editor Dave Obee about my Andrew Yam period, which he had no choice but to endure for one long year back when I was a columnist and shared a tiny office with him. Or talk to my kids about the time when they were teenagers and I would snatch whatever food or drink they were about to consume out of their hands and ask them if they had any idea how many carbohydrates were in it.
     But mostly I’ve loved this life of serial obsessions. It drives me to learn all kinds of things I wouldn’t have thought to learn. It pushes me out of my comfort zone to have new experiences that I wouldn’t have thought to have. It helps me shed that which has lost meaning, making room for something new.
     There can be a blah period in between the end of one obsession and the start of another. I don’t like it, but it’s necessary. You need a little breathing time between the fading light of the last obsession and the dazzling brilliance of the next one. (Every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.) Plus the whole point of obsession is that it’s a surprise, which means you never see it coming.
     But then it’s there, so sweet with its promise of discovery and newness, luring me up to play the accordion in the overheated second bedroom when I ought to be working, rekindling my hopes for a late-life career as a Mexican lounge singer. And just like that, I’m in love again. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Still not sure whether climate change is real? Come to Nicaragua


   
Without irrigation, small farmers in dry regions like
Terrabona, Nicaragua wouldn't have had any crops in the last 3 years.
A dry summer in Canada means our lawns turn brown. A dry summer in parts of Nicaragua means dead livestock and families on the edge pushed into full-on disaster. 

    It's been during these last four-plus years living and working here in Central America that I've gone from being passingly interested in the concept of climate change as a potential future threat, to being fully engaged and very alarmed by the impact that it's having right now in countries like this one, especially for farming families with few resources.
    A Cuso International delegation from Canada is in the country right now touring projects that Cuso supports through its volunteer placements. I went out on a field trip with some of the Canadian visitors this week to show them a project that my organization FEMUPROCAN has in the north with women’s farming cooperatives around Terrabona, Matagalpa.
    The region is in the fourth year of a devastating drought. In all of 2015, rain fell just twice. Not a drop has fallen yet this year. Desperate local farmers are counting down the days until mid-May, which is when the rainy season always used to start, and praying that this year it finally does.
    The trip into the village of Los Mangitos on Monday was almost apocalyptic in its dryness: Shades of brown in all directions, leafless trees, dust layered on everything. Here and there, groups of skinny cows and horses clustered around tiny bits of greenery that were the last remnants of anything edible in the arid landscape.
    The project we were visiting is a simple irrigation system installed three years ago with the financial and technical help of FEMUPROCAN, a federation of 73 women’s farming cooperatives in Nicaragua. (I do communications work for them as a Cuso cooperante.) The system pumps water from an underground aquifer to irrigate a 1.5-hectare plot owned by Ricarda Mairena and her family, transforming barren land into cool, green fields of tomatoes, corn and the pale, long-necked squash the Nicaraguans call pipian.
The aquifer is still producing, but the water level has fallen
dramatically after 3 years of drought. 
    And for three years, things have gone pretty well. Irrigation lets the family farm year-round rather than only during the brief three months of “winter,” the wet season. That has substantially boosted their food security and income, especially given that there hasn’t even been a real wet season since 2012. The commercial produce buyers that Nicaraguans know as intermediarios now pass through the village regularly, picking up produce from Ricarda to sell at the public market in Managua.
    But one more year without a wet season would be disastrous, says the family. They’re scared by how low the water level is in their well these days, and scared by the absence of pasture for their 5 cows. The animals are getting by on corn husks and spent tomato plants these days, at least until the sorghum is ready to be harvested.
    The 24 families that live around Ricarda’s farm are at least still getting drinking water from the municipality, once every day and a half. In a neighbouring village, no one has had water in their households for five months. The nearest community well is a kilometre away.
    A fellow Cuso volunteer in the north told me last week of families in one village outside of Esteli that are having to get by on deliveries of five litres of water every five days. Water for drinking, animal care, cleaning, bathing, cooking – all of it has to come out of those precious five litres.
    Nicaragua counts on small farmers to produce much of its food. But many women farmers associated with my organization aren’t even sure whether to plant anymore, as investing in seed or agreeing to rent farm land for what ultimately ends up being a failed crop can sink a family. Farming is a low-margin undertaking at the best of times, and a bit like tying a rock to your ankle and jumping into the sea in these years when the traditional rainy season can’t be counted on.
Producer Ricarda Mairena grows sorghum as a
"living barrier"at the edges of her gardens, both to
reduce pest invasions and produce feed for her 5 cows.
    These are desperate days, in other words. Down in the south, commercial banana plantations are dying for lack of water, with only the ones planted nearest to massive Lake Nicaragua able to survive. Water levels in the lake itself are significantly lower than usual, and the river that the lake drains into along the Costa Rican border is so low that local fishermen can’t get their boats out.
    In the municipality of Terrabona where Ricarda has her farm, locals believe that there are vast quantities of underground water waiting to be tapped into. FEMUPROCAN’s financial support for the bricks, mortar, pumps and large quantity of tubing and hoses that are essential to even the simplest irrigation system has been warmly received by women farmers because of that belief, and so far the wells that do exist are still producing.  Ricarda’s family is in the process of digging a second one.
    But even aquifers need to catch a break sometimes. The proliferation of heavily irrigated commercial tobacco-growing enterprises in the area make me wonder if anyone has studied how much underground water is actually available. Elsewhere in the country, treasured waterfalls in protected areas are drying up due to unregulated upstream water use and the lack of rain.
    An acquaintance from back in Canada commented to me a couple weeks ago that he still wasn’t sure “whether to believe all this climate-change stuff.” Any doubters, come on down. It’s real and scary in lands like this one, with so much more at stake than nice green lawns. 

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International. Here's our fundraising site. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Hard lessons from the Ghomeshi trial

     As news of the Jian Ghomeshi verdict started coming out this week, I felt like a human version of those three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil - all stopped up so I wouldn't have to hear what was coming.
     I'd had a bad feeling about where things were going from the moment that the first witness was eviscerated by the defence lawyer about her behaviour after the alleged assault.
     The witnesses, like me, didn't remember things they'd done 13 years earlier, and clearly weren't prepared to have those things flung back at them in detail by the defence lawyer with the worst light possible shining on them.
     I don't know why they weren't warned in advance that unlike other crimes, a sexual assault allegation means everybody's going to be scrutinizing your behaviours before and after, looking for evidence that you're a lying slut. But the trial has certainly been a good reminder of that. We like our victims of sexual assault to be snow white, and immune to the complex feelings that come when you're assaulted by someone that you thought liked you.
    They also weren't prepared to go up against a man who obviously knew there might be a day in the distant future when the women he assaulted would disagree with his version of events, and so kept every email, every note, every easily misinterpreted thing that people say in the oh-so-complicated circumstances of being struck in the face or choked by celebrities they'd been attracted to.
     "I’ve never felt so bad about being myself than I do now," witness Lucy DeCoutere told Chatelaine magazine this week. Could there be a sadder statement than that about how well our court system serves victims of sexual assault?
     Read this post-verdict piece from Witness No. 1 and weep. The things this woman wishes she'd known before bringing her allegations are things that virtually none of us know. Most of us would come to the court system with nothing more but a few episodes of Law and Order to prepare us, and perhaps naively thinking that being a victim gives you some sort of protection from the violence of a criminal trial.
     Why is that? Why do we wring our hands about doing something about sexual assault - the vast majority of which happens at the hands of people we have invited to come closer, who we've initially given consent to, thus making things complicated and unclear from the outset  - yet still talk so little about what awaits people when they dare to bring charges?
     Ah, but now we're all quite a bit clearer about that last point. The Ghomeshi verdict hasn't brought any sense of resolution, but it did bring a crystal-clear focus on how inadequate our justice system is in handling complex cases of intimacy gone off the rails, especially when the accused is so very, very aware of masking his violent behaviours through the artifice of consent.
     The only good thing to come out of this is the web site that one of the witnesses has now launched, comingforward.ca. She told Chatelaine she hopes the site will help survivors of sexual assault "find some guidance before going to police and taking the stand.
     "Right now, there’s nowhere to look all of that up, and no one to talk to," she said in the interview. "I wish I’d known all of that from the minute I walked into the police station. But I still think — as horrible as the system is — more people have to come forward. If everyone stays quiet, it’s never going to change."
 
Find Canadian sexual assault statistics here.
     

Thursday, March 03, 2016

When all the smoke clears and you see

The median family, before the little girl on the right broke her leg
     I’m just back in Nicaragua after a couple of weeks in Canada hanging out with my family, and going through one of those re-entry things where I’m suddenly reawakened to the many sad stories in Managua.
      Mostly, people cope down here, and with a smile on their face. But when you re-enter after two weeks of happy family time with all your healthy, well-fed and extremely well-tended grandchildren and their many friends, there can be this brief period where you see the place as it compares to where you just came from. And that can really get you down.
     First thing I saw after I hailed a cab near the airport Wednesday night was a motorcycle accident in which the stunned driver sitting on the roadside appeared to have his lower leg nearly severed. He sat bleeding and in shock as a huge crowd of people tried to wave down people with trucks and vans who could take him to hospital.
     The ambulance will come, my taxi driver assured me. But all I could think of was the legion of first responders who would have been all over that guy back in my land. And what will happen to him once the ambulance comes? There are good hospitals in Nicaragua, and the people tell me there are decent public ones. But the life of a young Nicaraguan with a serious leg injury and a long recovery ahead of him will be difficult well after the hospital work is done.
     And how will he work? Because if he can’t, there’s nothing for him other than to depend on his family to help him. There’s a form of social security here for people of a certain age who have had many years of steady employment in the right kind of jobs, but other than that there is very little for anyone who can’t pay their own way. No worker’s comp, no unemployment insurance, no income assistance, no special help for people with disabilities. I suspect we sometimes forget that ending global poverty isn’t just about wages and access to work, it’s about state-managed social support and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of all citizens.
     So that leads me to my next sad story, of a four-year-old girl with a broken leg who begs with her mother in the median near one of the malls not far from our house. I met the family when I took their photo playing Monopoly on the street, and now that I know where they hang out, I am finding them in my view much more often.
      I brought some Value Village toys back for the kids from Canada. There are four of them, and they look to me to be roughly ages 13, 11, 8 and 4. They live near the bus station down the road. I think the oldest three go to school, but the mom is always on the median until about 5 p.m. with the youngest one, who broke her leg in some accident while under her aunt’s watch, the mother tells me. The mother has the girl on her knee and an empty paper coffee cup in her hand, hoping the motorists will toss a few c√≥rdobas her way.
     The girl is on her third full-leg cast. I feel like it’s taking really long, and today she looked quite listless and jaundiced. But unless it’s someone like me who steps up – and what exactly am I even proposing to do? – a family like that will just have to go along and see where it all ends up. They will accept the care they’re given and get by as they can, even if the next generation of median beggar is being born right at this moment, inside a little four-year-old girl who at this moment has a broken leg that just won’t heal.
     OK, so now imagine that whole scene again if they lived in Canada. And there’s the sad moment right there. It wouldn’t happen that way in Canada. But it does in Nicaragua and around the world, and sometimes it just gets me to see such a blatant statement of how unfair life can be.
     A good Canadian can end up paralyzed by Western guilt and pity at moments like that. But really, a better reaction would be to take the hit of sadness, think about how a society even begins to change some of that stuff, and then point a little well-aimed wealth from richer countries toward getting all of that happening in countries that are struggling.
     As for you and me, I guess our role is to elect governments that feel the same way while opening our eyes to the quixotic and cruel ways of the world, and doing what we can when we see a problem unfolding in front of us. Act locally, think globally.
          Because if all we do is fix our own country, we leave a whole lot of people behind solely because they were born in the wrong time, wrong country. What with all of us dependent on the other in so many ways in this modern world, that’s got to change. “Somebody has to do something about that, and it’s incredibly pathetic that it has to be us,” as Jerry Garcia once said.
     Anyway. Go hug a happy child – yours or someone else’s – and thank your lucky stars you are a Canadian in 2016. Then maybe just let the sadness come for a few hours and see what it tells you to do. That's what I'm going to do. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

These are the streets I know: A commuter's journey from Los Robles to the far side of Bolonia

    Join me on my one-hour walk/bus to work in Managua through these 19 photos of the people and sights that I see most days as I walk along. It was a fun exercise collecting the pictures, as I'd never asked people's names before when I passed. Using the excuse that I was doing a "project" for my friends and acquaintances back home also made me feel more confident about just boldly asking people to pose, or letting me take a photo of their watch-goose.
    As seen on Facebook. But hey, not everybody's on Facebook.


This is Ricardo, one of the two security guys who work the gate outside our little complex of four houses. Ricardo alternates 24-hour shifts with Guillermo. Security work pays really poorly, so Ricardo has two other jobs.







The billiard hall next to our house, Pool Ocho. Our landlord told us it was a well-run, non-noisy place with no disturbances, and she was right. It's super-popular and every cabbie in the city knows Pool Ocho, but we never hear one bit of noise or trouble coming from the place.





Three of the many delivery guys who do pharmacy deliveries at the general store and pharmacy near our house. There's always so many of them hanging around that I presume they get paid at least a little just for showing up, as well as additional for each delivery.











The quirky stoplight where I now know that the best time to walk is when the little red man says I shouldn't, or wait until the little green man has counted down from 80 seconds to 35 seconds. Otherwise, you're in danger of being run over by cars turning left. 


Cuban restaurant Mojitos, which cooks its meats under the hood of this old shell of a car. It looks a little better when it's open and there are tables out, but not much. We're going to go there one Friday night, when they do a whole roast pig.




Escarlet, the woman who sells me baked goods, usually on my way home. One of my faves are the "encarceladas," which are thin squares of pineapple jam spread on a cookie pastry and covered in lattice pastry (the name means "imprisoned.)





Watch goose at a photocopy store with the owner's house in behind. The owner cautioned me that the goose might bite, but then invited me to open the gate for a better shot. I did get one, but I thought Mr. Goose looked more engrossed in his role as watch goose in this one.


The equivalent of Elections Canada, and the bain of my existence every Wednesday morning, when there is a standing protest against the government outside that is now met by a vast force of riot-ready police. I can't pass through this street on Wednesday to get to my bus because the police won't let anyone through. The protesters contend Nicaraguan elections aren't free and open.





Overpass across the busy street where the buses come and go. I feel slightly vulnerable on overpasses, but it is damn hard to cross the four lanes of busy traffic otherwise












Veronica, who makes the best and most gigantic sugar doughnuts to sell at the bus stop. She charges 11 cordobas each, about 50 cents










The usual scene at my bus stop, where a bunch of us await the arrival of whichever buses we're bound for. My walk to get here is about 30 minutes, then maybe 20 minutes on the bus before I get out for one last 4-block walk. 







And now I'm on the bus, heading toward my office. A good day today - seats for all.









I get off the bus here for the four-block walk to my office. This is a fast-food chicken place, and they are always washing the parking lot and the restaurant floor, including sometimes pulling booths out onto the street for a big washing.



Man and dog recovering from a rough night. While I don't always see this specific guy, or dog, sleeping at this specific place, it does seem that the four-block stretch to my work is home to enough serious drinkers that I will always run across at least one man passed out cold. Sleeping on the street here isn't about homelessness, it's about alcoholism






Jovani, who is an odd duck with a drinking problem who greets me enthusiastically as I go to and from work, pretty much every day. First we said hi,. then we shook hands, now he has taken to hugging, which I'm not too fond of. But hey, so it goes.



Carmen, the cart lady who I help out from time to time. Just before we left the country last year, I gave her $35 for new wheels for her cart. Recently I bought her some basic groceries - rice, beans, oil, salt, coffee. She walks a crazy amount with her cart, collecting bottles and anything else she might be able to sell for a few cordobas or salvage. She has a husband, kids and grandkids - sometimes she has her 5 year old grandson with her.


My office. As is the case with many, many offices in Managua, it used to be a house. There's been a middle/upper-class flight out of Managua's centre to flashier outlying neighbourhoods, and many of the older 'hoods have been converted into office space for NGOs, embassies and the like.


Inside my office. That's Rosita on the right, who is kind of the Jill of all trades for our organization and does everything from staffing the reception desk to making us lunch, maintaining files, running work errands, etc. And that's Ericka the accountant in red.


Can you imagine walking past cages of puppies every single day and not being able to buy at least one to take home? If I didn't know first-hand how difficult and expensive it is to export a dog from Central America to Canada, I'd be tempted. There are three or four dog sellers who sell on one of the streets that I walk home on. They claim the dogs are purebred and sell them for $100 US each. That and another $1000 or so Canadian to get all the permissions, vet papers, and ridiculously expensive flight costs will let you bring one of these sweet little guys home