Sunday, 26 May 2013

The New Totalitarians

I was at one of Vancouver’s Canada Line train stations today, and the loudspeakers were blaring:  “TransLink [that’s our beloved transit company] reminds you that only one bicycle is allowed on trains during peak hours.”

Now, the odd thing about this announcement is that it was made on a Sunday.  There are no peak hours on Sunday.  Just some transit company foolishness, I thought at first, but now I’m thinking TransLink is playing a deeper game.  Announcements are rife on the Canada Line, telling passengers not to intrude on the tracks, not to let their backpacks impede other passengers, and so on.

It occurs to me that the point of these announcements is less their subject matter than their existence.  Marshall McLuhan would be impressed.  It’s the medium that matters much more than the message.  There is never really an intrusion onto the tracks, it doesn’t matter about bicycles on Sunday, and so on.  What matters is that TransLink is conditioning, or trying to condition, its passengers to listen and obey these faceless pronouncements from the transit deity.

Winston Smith would also be impressed.  It’s like the orders for a Three Minute Hate.  Or like the announcements I read about at the Beijing Olympics, where spectators were reproached for I forget what.  Big Brother is watching, or at least exhorting.

This is coupled with TransLink’s latest campaign, which targets noisy passengers, sloppy passengers (eating and leaving debris on buses and trains), selfish passengers (hogging seats), and so on.  This was a quite clever campaign from TransLink, diverting attention from its own failings and getting passengers to say what bothered them about OTHER PASSENGERS.  Not what bothered them about the transit company, of course.

I at first thought of this simply as a clever example of divide and conquer.  It is that, but it is also more of this TransLink paternalism, treating the passengers like children who have to be told to clean up after themselves, play nice, and so on.

Now, there are some passengers who hog seats and block aisles with backpacks, or play noisy music.  It can be annoying.  But to have the authorities broadcast exhortations about behaviour is, frankly, a little disconcerting.

And woe betide anyone seeking to object to the announcements.  The buses now blare out each and every stop they’re making.  On non-express buses you can be bombarded with street names every few seconds.  I wrote in to complain, and was put in my place: TransLink wants to serve all its users, I was told.

(By this they mean they want their service accessible to the visually impaired.  I get that.  But the effect is that those of us with sensitive hearing and those of us who would like a quiet bus ride during which they can read or think, well, we’re out of luck.  I wrote back to say if you’re serving all your users, how about users like me?  This time they wrote a pseudo-apology, but were quite clear that their wonderful new system was here to stay.)

I realized that I was in the presence of True Believers.  TransLink most likely thinks it is Doing Good and that those who object are benighted dinosaurs.  It’s a dangerous combination: True Belief and Power.  There are other True Believers at the Canada Line stations: Mormons, for instance, standing there forlornly, hoping someone will stop to talk or pick up their literature.  But they have no power; they’re no danger.

But TransLink has the power to enforce its will on us, the public, with the aim, it would seem, of making us feel like erring children.  It is a dangerous path to go down.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

On Grammar and Causes

They published a letter of mine today.  In the paper it looked almost like this:

Robert Fulford's reference to the Apostrophe Protection Society reminds me of the group founded by me some years ago: the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Passive Voice (PFLPV).

It never had many active members (naturally), but it seems to have done its job.

Now I am thinking of founding a new society to protect the word "less." Not sure whether to call it the Anti-Fewer League or the More or Less Collective.

Hopefully, it will succeed too.

I say “almost,” because the editors couldn’t resist removing my final “Hopefully,” missing my joke about the campaign against that word, which I think was at its height in the 80’s.

Strange thing about grammar campaigns; they come and go like moral panics or other fashions.  Now we’re in the midst of a campaign in which people who care about grammar say you should always (well, almost always) use the word “fewer” where a few years ago the standard word was “less.”  So we get such monstrosities as “75 words or fewer” (on the letters page of a newspaper no less) or “one fewer province” (ugh).

Oh, well.  In between, or even before and after, there has been the attack on the passive voice.  And this at a time when people find it fine to say “Her and I met yesterday” (shudder).  Perhaps it’s precisely because people have given up on what used to be standard grammar for such things as “her and I” that they have latched onto foolish “rules” to make them feel they are still upholding something.

Who knows?  And who knows why fashions win adherents in other fields?  Where are the Jonas Brothers of yesterday?

The language does seem to be in flux, though.  On Twitter anything goes, and the language I was raised on (by reading the literature of the past century or two) seems to be fading.  But languages are always changing.  I do object to causes, though, especially when they make things worse.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

On Voting

Election Day in Beautiful British Columbia, and I feel exhausted.  Is it the prospect of casting a ballot and anxiety over the results, or just a lack of sleep?

I tried to count how many times I’ve voted over my increasingly long life, but lost track after about a dozen (including federal, provincial, municipal).  Strangely, though I work for a student society, I’ve hardly ever voted in a student society election.

A co-worker complained that just once she’d like to vote for someone who was better than the lesser of two evils, and I can understand the sentiment, but I rather like voting.  I would do it more often, but they only let you vote once in each election.  Think how  much more voting you could do if you could cast multiple votes.  In fact, I remember a student politician who did just that, but it had unpleasant repercussions.

So I walked to the Voting Place, as they call it – there must be a more technical term, but that’s what it said.  Had to dodge numerous cars: motorized voters.  Perhaps they should have drive-through voting places for them; in fact, didn’t I read about that somewhere?

Anyway, I managed not to get killed on the way to doing my civic duty, arriving at a Seniors Centre (usually I vote in a church, but perhaps my age is catching up with me: my voting number was 90, which is not quite my age yet …)

When I opened my ballot, my eye was caught by the Platinum Party.  Wonder who they are, I thought; I really should have done my homework.  But really there were only two choices in the election, and I let my intuition tell me who to vote for.

I try to follow my intuition or my gut instinct in voting.  I’ve gone against it only once that I can recall, and that’s the one vote I most regret and would call back if I could.  Not that it matters collectively.  One vote never decides an election (or almost never), but I like to be true to myself and vote for who I really want to vote for, and that time I didn’t.  I was too much in the grip of my upbringing that time, yet my inner voice told me it was time to break from that and do something radically different.  I didn’t, though, not that time: in later elections, yes, by which time it didn’t seem that radical anymore, but not that once, and I am sorry for it.

Then there’s the horse race aspect.  The results which will come in hours from now, and which it may be interesting to watch, though I have a house guest from afar and she may not be interested in what we British Columbians do.  I was interested in her province’s election when I was there last September, but then Quebec is always interesting.  And they even had shooting.

When I left the polling station, an elderly woman came at me with determination.  Uh oh, I thought, am I going to be attacked inside the Voting Place?  But she only wanted to give me a sticker saying I’d voted.  Interesting, I thought.  That might help advertise the election and increase turnout, so I took the sticker.  Didn’t put in on, though.  Voting is a private thing.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Formative memories

Memory is a strange thing.  Sometimes when I talk to my sisters, they remember things from our childhood that I have no recollection of.  Sometimes it’s the other way around.  Did we live such different lives growing up in the same household?  Or do we just tell different stories?

Some stories seem odder than others.   I think of one, for instance, which is simply the memory of a television show I caught a glimpse of once in Manchester, when I was a student there.  It was some semi-animated (clay-mation?) show with puppet-like characters in a spaceship.  The scene I remember is the ship plummeting to Earth (or perhaps some other planet).

“Oh, they’re going to crash,” some fellow student said as we watched in the common room.

And the puppets were running around frantically, shouting to reverse thrusters or whatever the technical term was.  And suddenly they seemed able to get the engines going to start reversing their descent.

“Oh, they’re going to make it after all,” said my fellow student.

But they didn’t.  It was too late.  The ship began to reverse course, or its descent slowed, but gravity was too strong for it; the inevitable fall had the ship in its grip, and after a brief moment of hope, there was a crash, explosion, death.

This scene stays in my mind, not constantly of course, but whenever I think something is off course in my life and needs to be corrected.  Quick, quick, I tell myself, like the puppets in that show; reverse course; fire the thrusters.  Why I should remember this scene of destruction at such a point is beyond me.  Perhaps it’s a negative example, a cautionary tale, warning me to do something before it’s too late.  But there it is.


Or you can run into your Ex and be reminded of unpleasant things.  One could call those deformative memories, I suppose, but I won’t go there.

Instead what suddenly comes to mind is a memorable quote – not memorable enough for me to remember it accurately, but it’s something along the lines of, “To live is to battle with demons.  To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.”  From Jung or Ibsen or maybe Robertson Davies (I think Davies maybe quoted them).  Do writers sit in judgment of themselves or of others?  Or both?  It’s the first part of the quotation that strikes home, though.  Sometimes life seems like a struggle with demons.

But that’s not a very positive place to end, so I’ll conjure up another quotation, from Raymond Chandler of all people, or really his hero Philip Marlowe, saying,

“The only salvation for the writer is to write.”

Which may be why I write this blog, from time to time.