Whither Joan Sprat?

The nursery rhyme goes, "Jack Sprat could eat no fat; His wife could eat no lean; And so betwixt the two of them; They licked the platter clean."

Things that stay with you: in the early eighties, the Beef Council of Canada, or whatever the industry marketing group was called at the time, ran a series of advertisements on television, seeking to rehabilitate beef's image. It's hard to believe that beef's image would need to be rehabilitated, but thinking back to the advertisements, it's clear what the marketers were thinking.

As I remember, their on-screen spokesman was Jack Sprat, a young and lively man who danced onto the set in a top-hat, coat and tales to a big chorus-line number. "Jack Sprat!" the singers exclaimed. "Could eat no fat", and this was okay because beef was now leaner (but not meaner), and thus Jack was a happy boy, and you should be too if you loved beef but wanted to have a healthier diet with less fat in it.

I'm not sure if the commercials did the trick in rehabilitating beef's image, except for the fact that this was the last advertisement I ever remember seeing from the Beef Council, and there's no shortage of people buying beef in stores. Also, I still remember this advertisement, even though it's around forty years later.

But as I look back at it now, I have to ask: where's Jack's wife? She's very much absent from these commercials as Jack carries on with the chorus line singers. Was there a divorce? Has she mysteriously disappeared to go somewhere, nobody's quite sure where? Where did you hide the body, Jack?

The third verse of the nursery rhyme, incidentally, goes, "Jack Sprat was wheeling; his wife by the ditch; the barrow turned over; and in she did pitch."

As an aside, Jack's wife really does get short shrift here, as evidenced by the fact that I had to look things up in order to find out that her name was Joan. And, in doing my quick research, I've discovered that, as with all nursery rhymes, the Jack Sprat poem is much more than just about a young man with an allergy to lipids: see here.

And, no, I'm not making this up. The ad exists and, thanks to the miracle of YouTube (doing a search after I wrote the above; so I misremembered the tophat, coat and tails when he instead adopted a Rick Ashley look), can be found here:

Farewell Rosemarie (1946-2022)

rosemarie-crop-1.jpgIn a similar way that I met my wife Erin, I remember the first time I met Erin's mother, Rosemarie.

Truthfully, I met Erin twice. The first time was a chance meeting on the Internet, where she wrote to compliment me on a story I'd uploaded to a Doctor Who fan fiction newsgroup. I was in my last year at university, living with my parents in Kitchener. She was on a work internship with the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva. I was Canadian, she was American. We bonded over Doctor Who, became friends, pen pals, we fell in love. I've told this whole story elsewhere. The critical part of it, though, was that the second time I met Erin -- the first time in person -- felt more momentous.

We'd agreed to attend a Doctor Who convention together, and we agreed to meet in the Great Hall of Chicago's Union Station. She was travelling in from Minneapolis, and I from Kitchener. But I couldn't find her when I got to the station. With my friend Martin in tow, I headed down to the information desk and paged her, and a few minutes later, she showed up.

We recognized each other instantly, through twenty feet of distance and a glass door. I pointed at her. She smiled. That was twenty-seven years ago, but I remember it to this day. I remember the smile she gave me, the mutual ping of recognition, because I just knew that my life was going to change from that moment. That was more than half of my lifetime ago, and my life has not been the same since.

I met Rosemarie seven months later, after Erin and I had a series of intense long-distance dates where we'd take turns visiting each other in Minneapolis, or Toronto. By now, she was living with her mother in Omaha, in an apartment abutting the interstate. I don't remember our particular meeting on this date -- it must have been in Omaha's airport, but she drove me down to the apartment she shared with her mother and we set about reacquainting ourselves with each other, and also getting dinner ready. Rosemarie was at work, but would be coming home soon.

I was nervous. Meeting the parents of the person you intend to marry (and we'd already made our intentions clear at this point) is no small thing. Erin had already had to do this herself with my parents just three months before. I wanted to make a good impression. Fortunately, I'm pretty good with introductions.

A little before supper, the door to the apartment unlocked, and this handsome woman entered. I saw the family resemblance immediately, both in facial features and how they carried themselves. I saw the intelligence in the eyes. Most importantly, I felt the same look of recognition pass between us as it had between myself and Erin in the information desk area at Chicago's Union Station, this sense of, "I know who you are, and I'm going to know you for a while." It was a portent of the beginning of a life-long relationship. When you marry someone, you're marrying their family. Several new relationships are forged at once, and I knew that this had happened in that moment.

And, with a smile with an edge of nervousness that I'm sure matched my own, she came forward and hugged me.

It's a cliche for a husband to be afraid of his mother-in-law. And O'Connor family tells the story of how the sisters gathered around a man who'd fallen in love with their youngest sibling. He was an Italian-American and a pretty fearsome cop, but they gave him the line of "if you hurt our sister, they're never going to find your body" -- the sort of story you laugh over because it's half-serious.

I never got the treatment that Erin's uncle received from Rosemarie's sisters, but I did hear that there was a vice president of a bank that Rosemarie worked for in the early eighties who was a sexist jerk to her, and she managed to put him behind bars -- indeed, he was still behind bars when I was dating Erin. He may still be behind bars today! It's important to note that she didn't fake any of the evidence of embezzlement and forgery that she'd found which put him away, but let us just say that she was highly motivated to go looking for what she found.

Rosemarie was a formidable woman. An active and ardent Democrat in Florida and the Republican Midwest, she never stopped fighting for the causes she believed in. She organized a major fundraiser for the Democrats of South Dakota celebrating Native Son and 1972 Presidential candidate George McGovern -- a successful event that brought Bill Clinton to speak (a speech that Erin helped write, in fact). She was active in the Obama campaign in Iowa in January 2008, which started his run to the White House. She was passionate about issues and descended like the wrath of God on injustice. When Erin and I were just too scrambled to act, she was the one who was moved to action when our eldest was being bullied at school and the school administration wanted everybody to just talk it out. You did not want to be on the wrong side of her.

She was formidable, but we never lived the cliche of the husband being afraid of his mother-in-law. She was a woman who fought hard, and faced some hard times and some very hard moments. We didn't always agree on things; we were somewhat different in temperament, but that wasn't a problem. I've come to learn that, at first, she didn't know what to make of this quiet Canadian man who was taking her daughter away, but as she got to know me, she came to understand and appreciate 'my dry sense of humour', my own expertise in things, my own writing. She had my respect the moment I saw her, and I like to think that I had her respect as well. Because that respect had to be earned.

Over the past year, Rosemarie fought a long battle with Parkinson's Disease. This past Wednesday, she found release, passing away peacefully with her husband Michael and her daughter Erin holding her close, while I looked on. It's a moment that will be etched in my memory, like the kitchen in the apartment in Omaha, or the Information Desk at Chicago's Union Station. The end of a relationship that has lasted over half your lifetime can hit with the same impact as the end of a relationship you've had for your whole lifetime. 

Either way, you know your life has changed forever, and that things will never be the same again.

The Queen is Dead. God Save the King

So ends the Second Elizabethan Era.
In my opinion, Queen Elizabeth served with honour, grace and distinction. There can be no one better. Thus, it seems to me to be a perfect time to retire the monarchy, at least in Canada.
That said, I believe we have to keep our Governor General position intact to act as our Head of State. Or, at most, convert it into an Irish-style presidency. This keeps our prime ministership in perspective: the head of state speaks for Canada; the prime minister serves it.
Of course, changing this would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means votes in the House, Senate, and at least seven provinces who together comprise at least 50% of Canada's population -- or possibly all ten provinces.
But I think most Canadians respected Elizabeth. They were less keen on the monarchy. As an age ends, I suspect many will argue that the time has come for change.

Statement of Principles (Part 1: Healthcare)

IMG_1679.jpegIn this age of rising political tribalism, there some parties are encouraged to see their opponents not as well-meaning-but-misguided individuals but as treacherous enemies who are out to destroy the country, it's only natural for the political discourse to get... heated. I confess to be guilty of this. On Twitter and other social media, seeing people deny basic facts to their face and seek to disrupt and "own" rather than actually debate, it's hard to keep one's temper.

It's been asked, how do you deal with an angry and vocal minority that have been fed a steady diet of rage who believe with all of their heart that the sky is green? I've said before that the task of bringing some of these people back to civil society will be akin to de-programming individuals from a cult. Can you argue with a group of people who think all of the above about me -- when for some of whom, de-programming is an act of kindness, and taking a gun to me is the more straightforward option?

But as the invective rises, maybe a solution is to reaffirm -- somewhere, anywhere, perhaps on this blog -- what it is that I actually want. Why do I vote the way I do? What do I believe in? Who, really, am I?

I've been writing this blog for over twenty years. If you really want to know who I am, and you have a lot of time on your hands, maybe start at the beginning and read on to the end.

But to save you time, let me make a few statements. I'll occasionally post these when the mood takes me. Take it or leave it, but it's what I believe in, and it's up to you if you feel I'm naive for thinking so. I'd be fascinated to see why someone would think I was malicious or evil.

Let's start with health care.

I believe that access to health care is a human right. Everybody should get the best medical care possible to meet their needs, and they shouldn't have to pay for it. If you believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, along with peace, order and good government, this is critical to life (and the pursuit of happiness, peace and order). One shouldn't have to take on debt in order to have a child. One should not risk medical bankruptcy to deal with cancer. Everyone should be guaranteed life-saving attention should they have a heart attack or end up in a serious traffic accident. And everyone has a right to die with dignity, free from pain, and this should be put on society's bill.

Before Ontario Premier Doug Ford mishandled the COVID pandemic, our medical system wasn't perfect, but it addressed most of these needs. My father had a heart attack and received life-saving bypass surgery, and wasn't charged a penny. My wife and I had two kids, and the only things we were out of pocket for were hospital parking and phone charges. My mother passed away from pancreatic cancer, but did so at home, with all the necessary care to ensure her passing was peaceful, and we didn't have to take out a loan for it. I did have to wait two years on a waiting list to receive surgery to correct cataracts but had the surgery taken place in America, I'd likely only have been able to get it if I had a good private insurance plan, and if I didn't have that, there would have been a good chance that I'd be left to go blind.

Today, thanks to Ford's incompetence (and, in other provinces, the incompetence of their premiers), several emergency rooms risk closure, doctors and nurses are seriously overworked, and there is an increasing crisis in the sector, even before the winter high-season. Ford has explicitly raised the possibility of looking at private options to try and solve the problems they created, and some have noted that this is an opportunity for the sort of questionable corruptive relationships that these Conservatives have engaged in, in the past. The recent legislation to shove seniors out of hospitals and into long-term care beds without their consent in order to free up beds takes on a new light when you consider how much of a stake Conservative backers like former premier Mike Harris have in private Long Term Care facilities.

I'm not dogmatically opposed to private companies running public services. I have seen that it can work (Service Ontario is not a bad operation, and Waterloo's ION LRT operates well and was delivered reasonably on budget). As long as the government can ensure that every individual receives quality health care when they need it, without encountering costs, then I'd be happy with that. However, can private companies provide that quality of service, without increasing the costs to the taxpayers compared to simply putting more money and attention into the public system that already exists? Colour me skeptical. And any move that shoves medical costs on the individuals who encounter medical problems is a non-starter for me. Our system could do with a lot of improvement, but I know from experience that the American model is one we cannot follow -- where medical costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies, and one reason why the average American dies carrying over $60,000 in personal debt.

So, as it looks like we're heading into a debate over how or whether we maintain or improve our health care system, this is where i stand: access to health care is a human right. Everybody deserves it. It shouldn't cost them a thing. I see it as just a necessary state of human dignity; without it, we're diminished as species.

Remembering Mike Filey

mike-filey-toronto-past.jpegMike Filey was not world-famous. Witness how my father-in-law asked who he was when I mentioned his recent passing at the age of 80. However, he did not set out to be. Instead, he lived an outsized life within the city where he grew up, spent much of his life, and very clearly loved with his whole heart. This is why many Torontonians are today remembering the man and his legacy.

Mike Filey was a writer and a historian, and he loved his hometown of Toronto. Not only did he faithfully log all manner of anecdotes and information about the city's past, but he also played a part in making the city what it is, helping with the Streetcars for Toronto Committee as they convinced the TTC to abandon its streetcar abandonment policy back in 1972. The fact that Toronto is a city of trams is because of him and the people he worked with.

But he is most known for his writing. He was a columnist for the Toronto Sun and the author of numerous books about Toronto's history. He talked up all the things that he loved, particularly the Toronto Transit Commission. As fellow writer Jeremy Hopkin stated in his eulogy, "Mike Filey's articles were one of the beacons that made me feel as though the [Greater Toronto Area] was indeed a special place that has a history worth celebrating and preserving." As a result, his work was a formative experience for many a Torontonian or Toronto transit fan, myself included.

But above all else, he remained humble and approachable. I met him personally on two occasions. I convinced him to share a book launch with me as I debuted The Young City, which was set in 1884 Toronto. He contacted me again a few years later when someone had handed over a collection of slides from old Toronto. We had a lunch at his home, with his lovely wife, and very pleasant conversation. It was kind of an honour to have his respect when he handed over pieces of Toronto's history to be logged in Transit Toronto.

So, Mike Filey never set out to be world-famous, but in Toronto he was famous enough, for the work he did, and the love he put into it. And for that, he will be remembered, by a lot of people.

Rest in peace, Mike. And thanks for everything.

The Communicators (2022 Walk & Run for rare)

walk-and-run-for-rare-logo.pngI am going to mix my work life in with my home blog a moment and tell you about a fundraising effort I'm involved in for the rare Charitable Research Reserve. Every year since 2010, the organization has run this fall walkathon event to help raise funds for their Turn the Map Green campaign, which pays off the costs of the 1,200+ acres of environmentally sensitive land they currently steward in Waterloo Region and Wellington County. This year, we're changing things up, turning the walkathon into more of a Trail Party, although the fundraising element remains.

I've signed up to walk the 5 km course on Sunday, September 25. Not only is this a good cause, but it's good exercise for me as well. And I've set up a team to broaden the effort. As rare's Communications Officer, and working as a Communications Coordinator for the Canadian Water Network, I know that communications personnel are special people, and we should stick together. So, I've set up a team for the Walk & Run for rare called The Communicators. I call upon my fellow Communications coordinators, officers, clerks, managers, directors and so on to support rare and the work it does. You can donate to my efforts directly here or, if you happen to be in Cambridge on Sunday, September 25 and want to participate in the Walk & Run and Trail Party yourself, you can join The Communicators as a participant here.

You won't regret coming out to take part in this outdoors event, as there will be food and drink, family-friendly activities, live music and more, and any support you can offer will extend rare's protection of the natural lands in Waterloo Region and Wellington County for the benefit of all, now and into the future.

So, how about it, communicators (and anybody else who wants to get involved)? Are you up for the challenge?

Canadian National Broadband Lines

Canadian_National_Railways_first_logo.svg.pngIf there's one lesson we need to take from yesterday's near-complete outage of the internet for Rogers, Rogers-subsidiary customers, and network providers that relied on Rogers' network, the Internet is now as important and potentially disruptive a piece of national infrastructure as our power system. For twelve hours, stores and restaurants could only operate cash-only. More disturbingly, government services such as ArriveCAN, Service Canada, and some 9-1-1 networks stopped operating. If nothing else, Rogers highlighted the widespread impact a cyberattack on our broadband network could have. So, how do we adjust to that?

Clearly, there need to be redundancies built into the system, but redundancy is the opposite of efficiency, and the great glorious skill that capitalist businesses trumpet for their shareholders, if not their customers, is efficiency. They generate the most revenue for the least amount of expenses. They invest as little capital as possible for the biggest return on investment. By their nature, they are incentivized to cut corners, to put all their eggs in one basket, and not to consider every possible point of failure and what it could do if it failed. And you see the result.

On Twitter, yesterday, some people questioned the desirability of having private capitalist enterprises manage vital public infrastructure. Telecoms used to be a public venture, so maybe they should be so again. Maybe it was time to nationalize Rogers. I'm not sure if that's the best solution, though. While there are benefits to customers (or, to put another word on it, citizens) to operate something as a public service rather than a profitable enterprise, replacing one monopoly with another encourages the same sort of complacency that marks Rogers and Bell's management of Canada's Internet. And Canada used to have a different solution.

When a mass of railroad bankruptcies in 1916-17 turned Canadian Pacific into the single profitable transcontinental railroad in the country, the Canadian government didn't react by nationalizing the new monopoly, or even opening the door to competition from American transcontinental railways. Instead, the government of Canada acquired the failed competitors (Canadian Northern, Grand Trunk Pacific, and so on) and merged them together to create Canadian National Railways, a crown corporation that operated at cost to run in competition with the CP monopoly. This maintained the competition that encouraged innovation, better customer service, and kept prices lower. Similar principles forged Air Canada (before it was privatized) to run in competition with CP Air, or the CBC to maintain a public broadcaster alongside various private radio and television networks.

We have slipped away from this approach in the intervening decades. Crown corporations have been privatized and regulations lifted. However, capitalists usually agree that competition is good, and they like to say that monopolies are bad (although they tend not to say this when they themselves own the monopoly), so if the marketplace has spoken and created a monopoly within a sector -- especially one where there is considerable public interest involved -- then government intervention to maintain competition rather than end it is a solution that we know has worked in the past.

Today, the Internet provider Shaw is fading in the marketplace. Rogers has reached out to try and merge it into its operations. After yesterday, many agree this shouldn't happen. But rather than let Shaw limp along to obscurity or bankruptcy, maybe Shaw should be acquired by the Canadian government, its mandate expanded to offer decent Internet service at cost or at modest profit across Canada. They could become the basis for our government to build more redundancies into our critical broadband network, protecting our payment systems, our 9-1-1 networks, everyone, should something take out one of the other networks. And Bell and Rogers would also benefit from this deal. Shaw -- now Canadian National Broadband -- could lease portions of its new national broadband lines to Bell and Rogers at cost, for the benefit of the profitable companies and, more importantly, their customers. Us.

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