Reading Tennyson’s Ulysses

Last weekend, while watching the delightful movie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I heard Bill Nighy make a wedding speech that included lines from one of my favourite poems: Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I recognized it immediately and it made me open the poem and read it again. The poem was written by Tennyson in 1833, but not published until 1842. I can’t recall exactly when I first read it, but it was in high school, in the 1960s. I’ve read it many times since.

It’s funny how one can read into a poem something entirely different on another reading. Or the third, fourth or tenth… Well, perhaps not funny as in humourus. Rather it is remarkable. Mysterious. Illuminating. Age, especially, seems to shine a new, different light on words and meanings.

Age is one of the things I think about more these days. Age and mortality. Not in a maudlin way, but rather as in seeing doors open and new paths to explore, making the most of what I have. What age does to us, what it presents, how we manage it. And how others have seen it. With both my parents dead, my own age presses upon me in ways it never did before.

But back to Tennyson. The poem, a monologue, opens:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The poem is ostensibly about Ulysses, the voyager returned from his adventures and his battle in Troy. After ears away, he feels constrained, is restless, and itches to go back out on the road. His home has lost its former glory and seems barren to him. His wife, years older, is no longer the beauty he left behind when he headed to Troy. Conformity bores him, frustrates him. Everything he left behind has changed – himself most of all – and he wants to be the man he was when facing adversity, years before.

But equally it is about us, all of us, as we age. Do we drift into retirement after a lifetime of school and work, to paddle downstream, drift with the current towards death? Or do we itch for more adventure? Are we satisfied with who we ae or do we want to be something else? Someone we once were?

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Strategic Planning, Part One: The Woo-Hoo Factor

Dilbert
There are, in general, two kinds of municipal strategic plans. One is pragmatic and practical. It tells you what you need to build, fix or replace, when you need to do it, how much it will cost, and where the money will come from. This is the stuff a council grounded in reality can use to budget, plan sensibly, and maintain the community’s infrastructure. It’s a roadmap that leads to a well-defined destination.

The other kind of plan is best described by the term woo-hoo. It’s an airy, feel-good exercise that spews forth happy catch phrases, the more nebulous the better. This is the stuff of wet dreams born of vague campaign platforms and fuelled by cliché-ridden dogma meant as a collective group hug without actually doing anything concrete. It’s an entrance to the fairy world where you can freely wander among the flowers.

I’ve seen the latest stage of Collingwood’s nascent strategic plan and in two words I would describe it: woo-hoo.

Over several posts, I’ll look at the “plan” as proposed, and critique it. It starts by asking participants to rank a “vision statement.” A vision statement, it says, is described as,

…inspirational. It brings together the priorities, thoughts and desires of a community to describe the ideal future for a community.”

Actually, what council needs is a mission statement that tells voters what it intends to accomplish in its term not a slice of spongy white bread. A mission statement can include a vision but there’s a goal in it. To boldly go where no one has gone before, is a mission statement, albeit a bit vague for municipalities. To fumble and flail and stumble wildly in the public eye while forgetting procedures and campaign promises… well, I suppose that’s a mission statement of sorts, too.

But let’s look at the five “vision statements” proposed for Collingwood (try not to let your eyes glaze over):

  1. Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable place for business that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront and natural assets to offer a healthy, affordable, four season lifestyle to its residents.
  2. The Collingwood of the future is a diverse, affordable and sustainable community that will grow based on its core strengths: waterfront, downtown and natural heritage.
  3. Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable community that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront, and natural assets to offer a healthy, four season lifestyle to its residents, visitors and businesses.
  4. Collingwood is the place where healthy living, excellence in government and a commitment to each other create a community that takes pride in its waterfront, its stewardship of the natural environment and its historical past.
  5. Collingwood is a thriving waterfront community that leverages its natural, economic and cultural heritage assets to promote a healthy lifestyle for all.

Don’t they just want you make you sing Kumbaya around the campfire? All those warm and cuddly generic, cookie-cutter statements that strain to avoid identifying Collingwood as a unique community. And all those buzzwords: leverage, excellence, thriving, sustainable, core strengths… sure, they’re all old and tired from overuse, but surely there’s still life in these old chestnuts if we drag them out of retirement and flail them. Why not sprinkle in a few more, like paradigm shift, prioritize, synergy and proactive? Really make it sticky sweet. (and let’s overlook the missing hyphen from four-season for the moment…)

And, of course, meaningless. Where are the action verbs? Where are the concrete, measurable goals?

Simple test: replace Collingwood in the lines above with the name of any other municipality with a waterfront and see if it makes a difference. Barrie.Toronto. Midland. Kingston. Ottawa. Nope, One is easily replaced with the other.

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Time of Use Billing

Bill shockUntil I sold my business, a few years ago, and started working from home again, I didn’t realize how much of an aggressive assault on many Ontarians – especially seniors and stay-at-home parents – our hydro time-of-use  (TOU) billing is. I had a naïve belief that it was fair. A user-pay balance. A tool to encourage us to conserve and use our appliances more wisely. And I’ve always been a big believer in conservation.

But time-of-use is not what we hoped. It targets the people generally least able to afford it. Hydro rates have risen rapidly under the current government: we in Ontario already pay more than what similar users in most provinces pay for electricity, sometimes more than double! Ontario hydro rates are higher than anywhere else in Canada! Regardless of anyone’s efforts to conserve and with the province trying to sell Hydro One, they will go through the roof. Time of use won’t change that, just punish us more.

The flogging will continue until moral improves. That’s the provincial government’s attitude towards our hydro and its costs. Fleece residents until they submit.

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Going Clear Reviewed

Going ClearI found it difficult to read Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Random House, 2013): it gave me a sense of unease, forcing a frequent over-the-shoulder glance to see if someone was following me just because I was reading it. But nonetheless, it proved compelling – so much so that I dropped all other books and read it cover to cover, uninterrupted earlier this summer.

It is by far the most complete, detailled expose of the church I’ve read  to date, and it made me wonder, why hasn’t all of this come to light before? Or did it and I just missed it?

It’s definitely not a flattering look at the church and if you know nothing about Scientology, it’s a real eye-opener. A scary one, at that.

This is also the title of a 2013 book and a subsequent documentary by Alex Gibney, based on the book. In a review of the movie in The Guardian, it noted:

Gibney’s film convincingly argues that their methods and practices are exploitative, abusive and dysfunctional on a massive scale.

And the review in The Independent concluded:

Gibney is too subtle and diligent a film-maker to indulge in a one-sided hatchet-job. The tone of Going Clear is inquisitive, not sensationalist. The documentary is painstakingly researched. If its accusations are “entirely false” (as the Church claims), it is surprising that quite so many former members continue to make them.

(The documentary isn’t on HBO Canada, by the way, but is on HBO USA – one of the reasons I don’t have cable any more: too much of this exclusive, anti-Canadian nonsense.)

Even if you look for it on YouTube, it’s not there (only the trailer is). You will, however, find several pro-Scientology rebuttals, some of them very acerbic and confrontational. Which is to be expected, if Wright’s claims in the book about the church’s paranoid and aggressive responses to any criticism are true. That also jives with the BBC reports I’ve linked to YouTube videos here.

And in my experience, I have reason to believe at least some of the claims for aggressive defence are true.

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Fiddling While Rome Burns

Nero fiddlesYou know that legend about Nero fiddling while around him Rome was burning? It’s a popular metaphor for political cluelessness, for inaction, procrastination, for politicians oblivious to the important business of the city while they play games. For municipal leaders who focus on the petty, the trivial, the irrelevant and the self-serving, while major issues are ignored.

Pretty much sums up Collingwood Council’s record to date. Fiddling with irrelevancies.

To be fair, they’ve only been in office eight months and probably haven’t got around to focusing on important things.

Still, you have to scratch your head and wonder why council wastes its collective energy on ephemeral (and irrelevant) strategic plans (that will be dust-collectors within days of being released as have so many previous plans become) or unnecessarily revising a generally unread code of conduct when residents really care about sidewalks, potholes, taxes, trails, parking and other more pragmatic issues.

One cannot but suspect this is the pursuit some hidden ideological plan, some secret, personal agenda being played out upon the citizens like an amateur theatrical production, instead of acting in good faith for the community’s best interests.

Last week, in its theatrical fervour, council unveiled what will likely be the highlight of its term: a revised code of conduct. And the populace responded with… a yawn. That was from those few who even paid attention to such minor issues. Procedural matters are to the public interest what a bicycle is to a fish.

Well, the council sycophants were, of course, delighted: those NINJA* remora think this is just the jim-dandiest thing a council could do and handed out back-slaps and congratulations like candy treats at Hallowe’en. And in crowing over it (clearly without actually reading it…), they ignored its glaring, egregious flaws. As we expected them to do. Cheerleaders on the Titanic to the bitter, icy end.

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Another Secretive, Self-Serving Committee

CouncilThis week, Collingwood Council passed a motion to appoint the Block Five to a new standing committee. The standing committee system, you will recall, is a system of secretive committees that operates predominantly out of the public eye, with limited council attendance, and often without even media presence. Committees conduct town business beyond the pale of accountability. Here’s what they passed (in a 6-3 vote*):

THAT Council approve the Striking Committee recommendation and appoint the following members to the Environmental Services Standing Committee: Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson, Councillor Tim Fryer, Councillor Cam Ecclestone, Councillor Kathy Jeffery, and Councillor Deb Doherty.

Saunderson and Fryer are, as you might also suspect, two of the three striking committee members.

This is the same group of five that voted to remove the long-standing CEO of COLLUS from the Collingwood Public Utility Services board – a man with 35-plus years experience in water services and highly respected across the province for his expertise, talents and his management skills – and replace him with the town’s interim CAO, a man with (as far as I know) little to no experience in those services and no vested interest in the community’s long-term sustainability or well-being.

It’s the same group that previously voted to extend that interim CAO’s contract by another year. Coincidence? Hardly.

Over the past several months since taking office, council has let – perhaps even encouraged – the relationship between the utility board and its staff, and the town’s administration deteriorate significantly. It has allowed a once-productive and mutually-beneficial relationship to grow into a toxic, confrontational environment. The head of the water services, another staff person highly-respected around the province, fled for a better working environment in another municipality.

Consultants were brought in to provide what clearly seemed to outsiders as pre-determined, very negative but erroneous reports about the utilities. Critical comments and responses about the inappropriate and even false conclusions, and the incorrect data used were ignored or buried. This was, metaphorically, Collingwood’s burning Reichstag: the self-created excuse to justify the Block’s subsequent slash-and-burn actions (although outsiders were able to discern the self-serving political motives behind these reports, this group took them at face value).

Then, in a move calculated to destroy the solid, 150-year-old working relationship between the utility services and the town, the same Block Five voted to dissolve the utility board – a group with decades of combined experience in utility services, politics and law – and replace them with a group of inexperienced, novice and ideologically-motivated politicians – themselves. Self serving? Don’t ask….

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Nailing Collingwood’s Door Shut to Business

DohertyCouncillor Deb Doherty seems eager to cement this council’s already ugly but deserved reputation for being hostile to business. This week she made a motion to re-open the always-contentious sign bylaw, apparently in order to impose draconian restrictions on business signs

THAT Council direct Staff to review Sign By-law 2012-110 with respect to sign height and any other revisions or amendments as deemed appropriate by the Chief Building Official; AND FURTHER THAT the report be presented through the Development and Operations Standing Committee not later than August 31, 2015.

Sign bylaws are necessary, but always contentious to debate. Municipalities want to limit clutter. Business owners want the freedom to erect signs that attract customers, advertise their products and generate revenue. Our bylaw is already strict enough: over the years it has proven a fair balance between control and liberty. Why fix what isn’t broken?

But apparently Ms. Doherty wants to tighten the screws on businesses. And I suspect most of council – the rest of the Block Five who vote as a clump, for sure – will follow her lead.

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Reincarnation as a Consultant or a Psychic?

 

A wag met Nasrudin. In his pocket he had an egg. “Tell me, Mullah, are you any good at guessing games?”
“Not bad,” said Nasrudin.
“Very well then: tell me what I have in my pocket.”
“Give me a clue, then.”
“It is shaped like an egg, it is yellow and white inside, and it looks like an egg.”
“Some sort of cake,” said Nasrudin.*

NasrudinShould I have the chance to do my life all over again, I’m not sure which career I would prefer most: a psychic or a consultant. One takes money from people because he is scamming them. The other takes money from people thinking he is helping them. I just can’t remember which is which.

I think if I were a consultant, I’d specialize in writing strategic plans for municipalities. That way, I’d only ever have to write one report, at the start, then I could recycle it to everyone else with minimal changes.

A psychic is, well, just someone who makes stuff up and gets paid for it. Other cultures call them liars, con artists, hoaxers, investment bankers. You don’t have to be very creative at it.

A consultant, however, is really a cook who works with words and ideas. Once you have the recipe just right, you only need scale it for the audience to sell it over and over. Toss lightly with a selection of local and generic photographs, get the mayor to write an introduction, and serve warm.

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