Friday, May 21, 2010

Can Trackside Gallery be reborn?
(Here's a link to a Barry Barr photo of Trackside art)

Not so long ago, Esquimalt’s Trackside Art Gallery was being feted far and wide as an extraordinary achievement.
A dark and crime-filled little lane transformed into an urban art gallery that was turning around young, troubled lives - well, that was a story that everybody wanted to tell. There were raves all round for Tom Woods and the non-profit Rock Solid Foundation when the outdoor gallery launched in 2001.
But that was then.
Today, painting graffiti on the warehouse walls in the 800-block of Hereward Road is once again prohibited, and volunteers with an unlimited amount of beige spray paint work very, very diligently to keep it that way. The ever-changing art that adorned the walls in years past is long gone, as is the dream of an artsy public space where young graffiti artists and the community could happily co-exist.
All that remains of the bold experiment are the 48 large murals that were painted in the first three years of the project and hung up high on the walls at Trackside, named for the E&N railway that runs alongside it.
The colourful and transient art that once dotted the lower wall has been painted over. The street lights in the area are off now that Rock Solid’s no longer paying the hydro bill. The youth who Woods envisaged a brighter future for have scattered around the region, along with their tagging.
Woods has been so wounded by three years of skirmishes with Esquimalt municipality that Rock Solid has now removed itself from the Trackside project. A new group of supporters under local businessman Jason Guille has taken shape, but they’ll be against a determined group of residents that doesn’t want to see graffiti return to the area.
Woods knew it was time to let go of Trackside the day an angry resident dumped a garbage bag filled with used spray-paint cans on the steps of the Rock Solid office. “Rock Solid had suddenly turned into the one being blamed for the problem,” he says in bewilderment.
Few people feel neutral about graffiti. Some appreciate it as a vehicle for artistic and teenage self- expression. Others see it as an offensive, unwanted and costly blight on the urban landscape. Both Woods and Guille respect the arguments of those who hate the stuff, but they also see much potential in having a spot where young outdoor artists can cut loose.
“Boundary creep” is a big problem for anyone making an argument for a legitimate graffiti space. Give youth a designated place to express themselves with a can of spray paint, and the next thing you know some of them are expressing themselves on all the nearby buildings for six blocks around.
More challenging still is the fact that flouting authority is part of graffiti-art culture. So it’s not like you can just lecture everybody about sticking to the rules and that’s that. Guille was reminded of that while talking to a young artist about the need for a firm graffiti boundary at Trackside. “He told me, ‘You don’t understand - I’m against all private property.’”
Guile came to the Trackside revival project through his Herald Street art and music space, the Sunset Room. He wasn’t familiar with Trackside, but artists exhibiting and selling at Sunset always seemed to be mentioning it.
“It kept coming up, mostly as, ‘I sure miss that place,’” recalls Guille. “So we brought together everyone who was interested to see if we could find a solution.”
Municipal staff didn’t respond to my requests for an interview, but Guille confirms he has met with the head of facilities operations, Mike Reed. What’s clear is that nothing’s going to happen on the lower wall without a management plan establishing responsibility, says Guille. “That’s the question. How is it sustained? Who controls it?”
Guille wants a solution that keeps everybody happy. He tosses out some ideas: A twice-yearly urban arts festival in which artists volunteered to do a general cleanup of the surrounding neighbourhoods in exchange for the right to paint the wall. A SWAT team of young volunteers tasked with cleaning up any graffiti outside the zone.
Or maybe the artists’ group just pays Esquimalt every year to cover the costs of graffiti removal - “like carbon offsetting,” says Guille. He’s got calls in to Mayor Barb Desjardins to talk further.
“The dream from my artistic side is to have a free wall again. From my community side, it’s to have one without much cost,” he says.
“It’s not going to be easy. But we’ve got some good people involved. We’ve got people who understand the difference between vandalism and art.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Living dark in a white world

It’s a weird feeling to be travelling in countries where virtually every face is dark-skinned, yet all the images on billboards and TV advertising are resolutely white.
Even the storefront mannequins and baby dolls are blond-haired and blue-eyed in Vietnam, where I recently travelled. If dolls are the way a little girl begins to imagine the adult world, what does it mean to an Asian child when no doll looks anything like her?
In Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, many of the young women now cover themselves from head to toe to prevent the sun from darkening their skin. Wearing jazzed-up face masks that have become a fashion staple in the country, the girls sweat it out in 35-degree heat wearing jeans, long-sleeved jackets, winter gloves and masks to shield their skin.
“It’s very hot!” one young woman told me from behind her flannel face mask. She was working the tourist beach at Hoi An on a scorcher of a day, running out onto the sand every few minutes to try to convince sun-seeking foreigners to rent beach chairs from her for the day (a highly competitive business, as it turns out).
“But I don’t want to get dark,” she added. “In Vietnam, we think it’s more beautiful to have white skin.”
Hey, we’ve all got our dreams. Vanity, thy name is woman.
But there’s a reason for being brown. Darker skin is less susceptible to sunburn, which is why people native to hot countries like Vietnam are generally darker than those from cold countries like Sweden. The basic biology of skin colour has little to do with the cruel realities of racism, but count it as a very disturbing development when any race learns to hate its own skin colour.
Women the world over have long engaged in acts of self-hatred in their quest for “beauty,” of course; nothing new about that. But for a whole nation of young women to have defined beauty as a skin colour that isn’t theirs - that’s just plain sad.
Go into the cosmetics section of any Vietnamese store and you’ll find row upon row of skin-whitening products for women. The bigger stores have whole sections devoted to “anti-melanin” creams and lotions, each promising whiter, brighter skin.
Pond’s, L’Oreal, Clinique, Nivea - all the big names in global cosmetics are selling extensive lines of whitening products in Vietnam. Here in Canada, the dream marketed in our cosmetics aisles is of eternal youth, but in Vietnam it’s all about being whiter.
More brilliant minds than mine have dissected the issues of power, race, sexism, colonialism and all those other heavy hitters that you’d probably find at the root of all this. No doubt the series of events leading to the phenomenon of the modern-day Vietnamese cosmetics counter were decades in the making, and complex in their origins.
But some of it is easy enough to understand, even for us average thinkers.
Maybe the reason that all the dolls and mannequins are Caucasian is simply because that’s what the big Vietnamese factories are manufacturing for export to the developed world, so that’s what’s most affordable to sell locally. Maybe the truth is that almost all the dolls and mannequins being manufactured anywhere in the world are white ones.
The giant store billboards in places like Ho Chi Minh City, with their ubiquitous images of languid white-European models looking great in clothes - they’re the identical ads we see over here. What motivation is there for a big fashion company to change its models to better suit a Vietnamese market, when everywhere else in the world accepts those same white-centric images without question?
That’s ultimately the grand revelation, I suppose: That we’re all being sold an ideal of white skin.
It’s more noticeable in a place like Vietnam, because the contrast between the ads overhead and the people on the street is just too ludicrous to go unnoticed.
Then again, try to recall ever seeing an Asian or aboriginal face in a major fashion campaign in Canada. Or a dark-skinned doll in a toy store that didn’t just look like a token brown-plastic version of a white doll. And that’s right here in Canada, where almost a third of the population isn’t white.
If I ever decide to launch a campaign for the right of every little girl to have an alternative to blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls, at least I’ll be able to start close to home.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Vietnam pictures on Facebook

Hi, Blog visitors. I've uploaded my photos from a recent trip to Vietnam onto my Facebook site, if you're interested in taking a look. They're available for anyone to see as long as they're on Facebook. Find them here.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Travel a reminder of how much we all have in common

Being able to travel isn’t always an option for people, for all kinds of reasons. It costs money and time, after all, two things that most of us never have enough of to begin with.
My early adulthood was like that. I missed the chance to be one of those adventurous young people I see all the time out there in the world, mixing it up joyously with young wanderers from around the globe while discovering what a big, big world this truly is. Regrets, I’ve had a few, and that’s one of them.
Fortunately, I’ve had the privilege over these last 15 or so years to be in a place in my life where I could do some of that travelling that never came my way as a young person. I learned I could start out easy and take it from there. I could buy a good guide book and find ways to travel inexpensively.
Since then, travel has become one of the most important aspects of my life. I’ve concluded that it’s such a profound and essential thing to experience, we should just find ways to make travel happen more often for everybody. What the world needs now isn’t love, it’s understanding.
This last trip, March 20 to May 1, was six glorious weeks. My partner and I travelled through parts of Thailand, Malaysia and Australia, then spent more than three weeks in Vietnam. I could have kept going.
The two of us are too old for the hostels and the all-night parties awaiting younger travellers; we’ll just have to catch that experience in the next lifetime. Happily, the world is full of one- and two-star hotels that are just fine for middle-aged, economy-minded travellers who like to be in bed by 11 p.m. and would rather not share their bathroom.
The gift of travel is that it’s both familiar and deeply strange at the same time. You visit countries where they’ve got all kinds of peculiar governance styles and punishing laws and different ways of doing things, but the people you meet on the ground are essentially just trying to get through their lives like anybody else.
Wherever we end up living in this world, we’ll spend our lives in search of food, work and purpose. We’ll help our kids grow up. We’ll eat, we’ll love. We’ll shape the world at hand to suit our needs, and sometimes the result will be a beautiful thing to behold and other times, it won’t.
The government, the police, “the state” - they come in all shapes and sizes, and are capable at any point in time of great good as well as unbelievable evil, often both at the same time. But down at the people level, life at its most basic goes on. People always find ways to carry on.
If you read a textbook on Vietnam, you’d learn that it’s a socialist country where traffic is strictly controlled through low speed limits and tough laws for the country’s tens of millions of scooter-riders. It’s against the law to go without a helmet or carry more than one passenger, both offences carrying crippling fines and licence suspensions.
The reality is a seething, swerving sea of scooters doing whatever the heck they want. In Hanoi, it’s common to see mom, dad and at least a couple of children stacked onto a scooter for the slow morning weave through traffic. Until Hanoi, I never would have believed that one person could carry dozens of water-filled bags of goldfish on a single motor scooter, let alone hundreds of pomelos and an antique dresser.
The Vietnamese are not an unlawful people, mind you. They’re just doing what humans anywhere would do if they found themselves needing to get around - they’re figuring it out. If that means stacking the two youngest babies length-wise on top of each other so the five of you fit on the scooter, so be it. Police look the other way for the most part.
Things are different in our society, where you really would get in big trouble for riding helmetless up the sidewalk with three generations of relatives and a queen-size mattress on your scooter. Then again, our poor in Canada can’t even afford scooters. They’re just stuck in place. Is that better?
That’s what travel does for you. It’s about things that make you go, “Hmm.” Our similarities and differences are most obvious in poorer countries, where so many people end up living where everybody can see them. But anywhere is interesting.
You’ll make your own decisions about travel, of course. But if I were you, I’d seize the day. The world awaits.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Governments struggle to get it right on social issues

You learn things over the course of a journalism career.
A lot of it just flies right out of your head a month or two later. But some sticks. I wouldn’t say it gives you wisdom, exactly, but you do start developing a sense for how certain stories tend to turn out.
Observing government has been particularly informative. We all know history repeats itself, but it repeats itself really quickly when it comes to government. With a new cast of characters every three or four years, there are always newcomers to stumble into the same mistakes as their predecessors. Pretty soon, you start to recognize the signs.
First, a moment of appreciation for all the good things that our regional, provincial and federal governments do. Trying to represent the interests of all of us is one heck of an undertaking, and on many fronts governments get it right.
The roads are paved. The lights are on. The taxes are collected and the debts are paid. Sure, we grumble, but much of what governments do on our behalf works out perfectly fine.
Unfortunately, there’s one area that trips up virtually all of them. Governments routinely get it wrong around social issues.
I know, I know - who am I to define something as “wrong” just because I don’t agree with the tack taken? But what I’m talking about is a measurable kind of wrong, one that hurts the economy, the citizenry and the culture in the long term.
That almost 30 per cent of B.C. children are developmentally behind by the time they start kindergarten, for instance, will cost the province 20 per cent in lost GDP growth by the time this generation of five-year-olds reaches retirement age. We talk about improving that vulnerability rate, but the cuts to community services going on right now are taking us in the opposite direction.
Social decay happens in increments, and over a very long time. A government that cuts social supports will in most cases not be around when the chickens come home to roost, so they have little to fear in making such cuts.
I’ve seen every shade of politician cut social spending. Perhaps it’s because it seems like such an “easy” place to find short-term savings, with little risk of political repercussion. In some cases I think it’s because a political party genuinely believes that tough love is the answer, although you’d think the huge growth in homelessness over the last couple of decades might at least give small pause to the validity of that belief.
Looking at the issue through a political lens, you can see why a politician might conclude that the place to cut is around social support.
When social care is working, it’s all about an absence of problems. Get it right, and families don’t break up. Teenage girls don’t get pregnant.
Adolescent boys don’t fall into youth gangs. Old people live out their final years without event. People don’t commit crimes. Little children grow up healthy and happy, the bad life that they might have been headed for never gaining a foothold.
Happy news in terms of healthy communities. But how is a politician supposed to take credit for nothing happening as a selling point in his or her re-election? You can see why things like bridges and arenas and Olympics events are so appealing to elected officials - they’re tangible proof of something accomplished during their time in office.
Cutting social support also seems to be an easy sell to voters, many of whom are only too happy to back a Darwinian approach if it means they get to pay less tax. They fail to recognize that yesterday’s shattered family is tomorrow’s public expense, for reasons ranging from chronic illness and poor health to low productivity, more violence and crime, intergenerational poverty and increased disability.
It certainly doesn’t help that there’s such a long gap between when social cuts are made and when problems start manifesting. A journalist might make note of such things as the years unfold, but the average person isn’t necessarily going to connect the dots.
Even when they do, who are they supposed to hold accountable? It was a Social Credit government that kick-started the crisis of mass homelessness we’re now experiencing by closing B.C.’s big mental institutions in the mid-1980s, but they were nowhere in sight when things started to derail.
By the time the real costs from the current cuts hit home, this government will probably be long gone, too. Too bad the bill for their short-sighted mistakes will linger on.
Tips for getting noticed when you're gone

I heard a very amusing talk on death a while ago, given by Globe obituary writer Sandra Martin. Among other things, she discussed how she picked the people she wrote about.
Would she pick you if you died tomorrow? It’s an intriguing thing to ponder, should you be the type who likes to reflect on the criteria for leaving a splashy national obit behind.
I don’t write obituaries, but I do read them, along with the media coverage that certain deaths tend to generate. I’ve spotted a few surefire strategies for getting noticed after you die.
Be a celebrity. If you’re a Margaret Atwood or a Gordon Lightfoot, or even that friendly looking guy from Corner Gas, you’re going to get a decent obit in virtually every major paper in the country. If you don’t make it to the national stage, no worries - be a celebrity in your own hometown.
Be a humanitarian. We love remembering people who do good things. Stephen Lewis, Romeo Dallaire, Craig Kielburger - they’re in.
Be a scoundrel, or a monster. We also love remembering those who do bad things. Garden-variety criminals need not apply, though; this category is for the charming psychopathic rogues and the truly heinous. No need to worry that Clifford Olson’s death will slip by unnoticed, or Ian Thow’s either.
Be “first” at something. The first monkey in space, the first aboriginal hockey player, the first woman to file a sex-harassment suit against her boss - such acts make you a permanent part of history. We will remember you, at least for a day or two right after you die.
Be interesting. This one is harder to define. We all like to think of ourselves as interesting, but to qualify for a big media response you really have to kick this one up a notch. For instance, you know Renee Richards is guaranteed a ton of coverage when she dies, because what’s not interesting about a transgendered professional tennis player who became a renowned eye surgeon?
Be a hero. To die doing something perceived as noble is guaranteed to get headlines. You’ll have noticed, for instance, that all Canadian soldiers killed in the line of duty get written about in the media.
As for the rest of us, anyone who dies in the midst of a “heroic act” gets much more media coverage than if death comes in more ordinary fashion. The boy who drowns after diving into the river to save his dog gets a feature, the boy who just tumbles in on his own gets a couple of paragraphs.
Be local. If your name transcends jurisdiction, go ahead and die anywhere in the world. The media will find you. But for those of us whose name has little resonance beyond our yards, your best bet when you die is to live somewhere that people can recall you having lived a very long time.
That is, unless you already fit in a category I’ve noted, in which case your home town will probably remember you even after you move away. There will always be a spot in the Ladysmith Chronicle to observe the passing of Pamela Anderson.
Be young. There’s something so wrong about the death of a young person that it generally attracts media attention if it’s at all public - a car accident, a violent death, a drowning. The one exception to this is death by suicide, which in fact is the second leading cause of death among young people but rarely mentioned in the media.
Be extremely old. Why, when I was a young reporter, you could live to be 100 certain in the knowledge that you’d be getting your picture in the paper. How times have changed. Living for a century is old hat now; if you want public recognition of your passing, you’re going to want to make it past 110 these days.
Be rich and powerful. This is a bit like being a celebrity, but not always. Rich and powerful people often keep a low profile during their lifetime, and it’s only when you read their obituary that you realize they owned everything in the world.
Build a weirder mousetrap. The guy who invented the “Magic Fingers” vibrating bed got an obit. So did the guy who invented Teflon (he “slid away,” the headline opined), and the fellow who owned Britain’s last fairground boxing booth. Get creative.
Be a journalist. I used to roll my eyes at the newsroom tradition of doing mandatory obits on anyone who’d ever worked in the business. Now I’m counting on it.
Change comes, but never easily

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, as French novelist Alphonse Karr so aptly noted a long, long time ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A career in journalism really brings that home. I think I’d been a reporter for less than a year when I first experienced that sense of déjà vu that would eventually become so familiar to me.
I was flipping through the newspaper archives at the time, looking for one of those “25 Years Ago Today” items (hey, somebody has to write them). I came across a long string of stories about the regional district’s struggles to fix the outdated and underperforming hospital laundry system plaguing the Thompson Valley Regional District at that time.
Having just finished up a story that very afternoon about the district’s outdated and underperforming hospital laundry system - which everyone was still worrying about 25 years later - I wondered if my archival find was just an amusing coincidence.
It wasn’t. With many years of journalism now under my belt, I can assure you there’s definitely a lot of Groundhog Day in the things we call “news.”
That’s not to say that the daily news is always the same, or that nothing ever changes - if that were true, I’d still be pecking out stories about the annual stud auction in Kamloops on a typewriter, using hand-me-down carbon paper from the accounting department to satisfy our cheapo corporate owners.
But the big, difficult issues of this world - well, they do have a tendency to drag on.
Some assume a kind of mythic proportion, looming so large that mortal man is brought to his knees at the very thought of trying to find a resolution. I put sewage treatment for the Capital Region in that category, because nothing new has been added to the debate in the 21 years I’ve lived here and yet we still can’t sort it out.
Others present as problems that in fact end up getting fixed, at least for a while. But then everybody mistakenly takes that as meaning they can quit worrying about the issue. And then the money dries up, because nobody’s paying attention anymore.
And then the problems re-emerge, and you find yourself back at the beginning again as if nobody ever did anything.
The Victoria Health Project was a sad example of that. It was a fabulous three-year pilot project to test whether seniors with health and mobility problems could be maintained in their own homes with a few key homecare services, thus avoiding ending up in expensive hospital beds that they didn’t really need.
The pilot worked really well. And for a while, we all lived happily with the programs that grew out of the project - at least until one tight community-health budget after another over the next 20 years starved most of them to death.
Barely 10 years after the Victoria Health Project had identified a better way, health administrators were back grumbling to the media about old people blocking hospital beds. I started calling them to find out how this could be, and discovered not only that the programs were a shadow of their former selves due to funding erosion, but that most of the people now in charge of the health system had never even heard of the project.
That lack of institutional memory is clearly a major factor in why we spin our wheels over problems that we’ve already solved. But inertia strikes me as the primary reason for why the news repeats itself.
An example: Assisted suicide. Sue Rodriguez fought a hard battle in the early 1990 for the right to have someone help her die.
She was a perfect “poster child” for the issue: Smart, young, well-informed, and tragically dying of ALS with no cure in sight. If anyone was going to make us change the laws, it was her.
But nothing happened. Nearly 20 years passed, and all of a sudden my dear friend Bernice Levitz-Packford materialized in the local media earlier this year trying to resurrect the issue. Fortunately for her (but sadly for us), she died at home not long after at the fine age of 95, freeing us to ignore the issue for another couple of decades.
We can’t give up, of course. Inertia and institutional amnesia aside, some things are simply worth fighting for. Change is possible, but what’s striking is how difficult it is to make it last.
No magic to weight loss - just eat less

One of my friends is an avid reader of the TC’s “Celebrations” section, that Saturday feature where people turning 50 or marking double-digit wedding anniversaries send in photos of themselves from back in the day. She says nobody is ever overweight in those photos.
It’s true. People weren’t nearly so likely to be heavy in those years. Children were virtually never overweight.
But that was then. Nowadays, the kids are getting fat and the adults are getting fatter, and the many health ailments and societal costs related to obesity just keep stacking up higher around us.
What happened to change things? A lot. Still, there’s only one key difference that matters: While previous generations consumed the right amount of calories for their energy needs, ours doesn’t.
True, there were many things about life in the 1950s or ‘60s that made it easier to keep your weight down.
For starters, everybody smoked. (Sure, nicotine is evil, but it does have an effect on body weight.) People were also much more likely to have jobs that required physical work.
Families were more inclined to order their children out of the house to play, which meant children were more active. There was less money for eating out, and far less “fast food.”
Moms didn’t work outside the home as much, so families sat down for regular meals together more often. Most families had only one car, which meant a lot more walking for everybody in the household. Everything was just a little more physical, even changing the TV channel.
In food terms, it’s all just calories burned. People in those years burned as many calories as they ate, so they didn’t accumulate fat.
Our generation’s calorie intake, on the other hand, is profoundly out of whack with our activity levels.
Blame it on societal change. Blame it on corporate food production. Blame it on poor parenting, higher levels of anxiety, and food science manipulating our taste buds, because it’s about all those and more.
But for all that, it’s a simple enough problem to resolve. We just need to eat much less.
How many of us even know how many calories we eat in a day, let alone how many we burn? Until I got my first Big Book of Food Counts a few years ago, I didn’t have a clue about the caloric content of most of what I ate and drank.
I don’t imagine our thin predecessors were particularly well- informed either. But for all the reasons listed above, they didn’t have as much need for awareness. They kept busy enough to burn off the calories they ate, and didn’t have anywhere near the access that we do to cheap, high-calorie foods.
The Vancouver Sun provided a marvellous public service late last year with the creation of the “Fatabase,” a searchable database of 64 restaurant chains operating in B.C. If you haven’t given it a try yet, visit for a disturbing insight into your favourite restaurant meals.
As you might expect, the most horrifying counts are at fast-food chains. A Burger King Triple Whopper with cheese, for instance, weighs in at a whopping 1,240 calories - representing more than half the calories and all the fat that an average person needs for a whole day. Throw in a large order of fries and a 12-oz pop, and that’s pretty much your daily caloric max in a single meal.
But don’t think that eating more upscale will save you. A dinner of parmesan-encrusted sole at the Macaroni Grill is 1,710 calories. It contains almost enough fat to meet two days’ worth of dietary needs, and more sodium in one meal than you should eat in an entire day. God help you if you finish things off with a cheesecake dessert.
Maybe humans needed calories like that in our hunter-gatherer days. But we’re a long way from those days. Pecking away at my computer for a full eight hours only burns a scant 240 calories. That’s one piece of buttered toast and an apple.
People like to think that their exercise programs are taking care of their caloric indulgences. But I’d have to run for two full hours just to burn off the calories from a single Triple Whopper with cheese.
Buy a food-count book. Browse the Fatabase. Learn the caloric content of the foods you and your family eat, and how that number stacks up against the calories you burn in a typical day.
That’s how we’ll get a grip on global obesity. One smaller mouthful at a time.