Can anyone explain the cockroach?

Dear Uma: One of the many less than pleasing aspects of getting older is conversation, not the activity itself, but its content. As we age our talk gets wiser, more mature, in subject but it isn't nearly as much fun.

Dear Uma:

One of the many less than pleasing aspects of getting older is conversation, not the activity itself, but its content. As we age our talk gets wiser, more mature, in subject but it isn’t nearly as much fun. There was a time when I could count on lots of laughing during our conversations but now I can’t remember the last time I laughed with you. I’ve laughed at you, near you, about you, and to you, but we haven’t laughed together for many weeks.

Our last phone chat covered illness and pains, our own and others, and moved directly into environmental poisons, climate change, rotting bureaucracies, and natural disasters. We did that in less than 15 minutes and finished up with an earnest discussion on the ramifications of public debt. You resisted my every effort to be humorous about these issues; by the time I hung up I was feeling pretty low.

Not to say our conversation the other night is of itself funny, or that it isn’t interesting; I have long been fascinated with the subject of debt, both actual and psychic, and I share your discomfort at the amounts of money representing our national debts. You and I are members of the generation whose parents were not in favour of owing money, either personally or nationally, an attitude that now seems quaint. The modern-day reality, we are convinced, is vastly changed; rarely is it possible to own a home or start a business without going into debt. It has become for most people a fact of life, right at a time when job security is almost non-existent.

None of this is funny, I know that, but sometimes I am struck by how ridiculous it all is, in the finest sense of that word; it is all so transparent in motive, so ancient in history. Nothing much about the behaviour of human beings has changed since we began to walk upright; in essence we are not far from the mouth of the cave.

I will go with you on the observation that the mental and physical stress of debt is considered to be right up there with death in the family, divorce, and moving one’s household, although it seems to me a blitheness about debt is more common or why would people do it?

The debts of this territory stagger the mind when one hears of the millions of federal dollars that come into the hands of the Yukon government. There are only 32,000 people in this entire piece of Canada; it really doesn’t take an economics degree to figure something is really not working properly here.

Dominating any public discussion of public money is the attitude that the ordinary citizen cannot possibly understand the complexities of modern finance, and most of us accept that premise because we are too lazy or apathetic to bother to learn or because we have no confidence in our ability to understand.

The lack of belief in ourselves is a damned shame; we are mostly capable, smart people who have learned a great deal simply by having navigated our way to lives that are pleasant and self-sufficient. We know so much that we don’t know we know; we have learned to mistrust our instincts, our ‘gut’ feelings, the ones that more often than not are telling us the truth of a situation. This resonance with truth is universal, and reliable, and it applies to everything. We don’t have to know how to write out a balance sheet to know when something stinks.

Which is why, when I came across the story of Hazel McCallion, I felt validated in my hunch that finances can’t really be all as difficult as we are made to believe them to be.

Hazel is 82 years old but she still does all her own housework and gardening, in itself commendable at her advanced age, and worthy of admiration. But she also holds an important position in Mississauga, Ontario, the sixth-largest city in Canada – she is the mayor.

Hazel has been the mayor of Mississauga for 32 years, since 1978. She refuses political donations and has been re-elected more than once without even running a campaign – a 76 per cent majority will do that to you.

But the thing that really caught my interest in the story of Hazel is the fact that Mississauga has been debt-free since 1978. Along with most people, I have come to accept without question that households, towns, cities, provinces and territories and countries cannot be managed without gargantuan amounts of borrowed money but here is the quintessential little old lady keeping a major city debt-free for 32 years. Is no one paying attention? I would think there would be a host of politicians and financiers sitting at her feet eager to learn how she has managed such an accomplishment.

What this tells me is that it can be done, that it is entirely possible to run a city without crippling it with debt. Hazel says she runs her town like a business, but clearly she has an old-fashioned idea of how one runs a business. She uses archaic words like ‘honesty,’‘duty,’‘trust,’ and ‘honour.’ She even mentions ‘loyalty’ and ‘common sense.’

Her many accomplishments as mayor and as a citizen have earned her the Order of Canada and many other awards, national and international. Her excellence has been recognized and applauded, but not imitated. I wish I could imagine Hazel sharing her knowledge to an eager audience of mayors, but if it hasn’t happened in 32 years, the likelihood of it grows more and more remote.

The power and wealth we have enjoyed, earned by earlier generations of leaders such as Hazel have made us complacent, and lazy. Our leaders today have not been trained to think for themselves, only to keep the routine going. They can answer questions, but not ask them; they can fulfil goals, but not set them. They devote their energies to getting things done but don’t question whether they are worth doing. These leaders constantly reveal themselves to be resistant to be ‘business as usual.’ Today’s are not about change; they are about attempting to maintain the status quo. There is no place for people who can formulate a new way of doing things, a new way of seeing things: people with vision. Real leadership means finding a new direction, not just putting oneself in front of the herd heading towards the precipice.

If something is to happen to shift this sad direction, I don’t know where it will come from, not with a generation growing up who consider twittering, tweeting, and texting an active and meaningful social life. A generation whose every interest in every thing is marketed to them by clever technocrats, and most importantly, a generation who no longer believe in the validity of ‘finding oneself;’ of being alone to discover one’s own voice, one’s own reality, not the one they are being sold.

My mission for myself is to be moving from a feeling of frustration that Hazel’s catch words are no longer a factor in anything other than romantic nostalgia, to a feeling of interest in what has and what will take their place. This endeavour requires that I not get too overcome with earnestness, or at least not for long.

What can anyone do but make a joke about actions such as Toronto’s replacement of city sewer pipes after the storm of August 2005? That storm was the worst and the most expensive in the city’s history; $500 million worth of insured losses, 4,200 homes flooded and a major road wiped out. The sewer pipes were replaced with new ones that were exactly the same size as the old ones!

Those being led are naturally part of the issue and for another hilarious example of refusal to do things differently I give you the latest, vociferous, complaint of the Canadian consumer that has come to my attention: Frito Lays’ new, compostable bag for their Sun Chips is too noisy.

I could go on and on; it’s easy enough to do with the daily news of who and what has done the dumbest thing and to be humorous about it is easy and fun, but let’s you and I resolve to meet in a middle, as we have often done before. I will try to be more serious and you will try to be less serious, remembering these attempts have always resulted in a good laugh and left us both feeling good, about ourselves and each other and that is a fine state of affairs.

Darwin said it is not the strongest or the most intelligent of the species that survives; it is the one most adaptable to change.

That doesn’t explain the cockroach….



Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.

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