Saturday, September 26, 2009

2 Weeks Down, X to Go

All my good intentions about regular blogging hit the wall called Grad School and I can tell you now, the outcome wasn't pretty.

Two weeks into my studies and more often than not I feel overwhelmed. Though there have been lots of good moments when I feel I can show my profs that I belong, etc... More so, it's really trying to settle in my own mind that I belong, that I can do work at this level, and that I can excel. It's more the peripheral stuff that's overwhelming. Research grants, papers, ethics reviews, orientations, getting office space, late Friday evening discussion groups, thesis proposals, supervisors, review boards... all this stuff that it seems I'm supposed to know about!

Though in 2 weeks I do feel I've progressed in determining my path here... which only muddles more things. Going into my degree the program was all coursework with an option for a theses and I think I'm going for that option. My meeting with my advisor went something like, "Yeah, that sounds great (after hearing my loose proposal), lots for your thesis there, don't waste time on your Masters, get it done and get into your PhD and that's where you'll really get into the research you want." PhD? Ha.

Anyways, aside from school, Nolana has left today for 3 weeks of cross the country visiting of family with Daija, leaving me to fend for myself for that time. We'll meet up for a day in Calgary in the middle for sister's wedding but, other than that, flying solo for 3 weeks. That's a long time.

Daija is growing up like crazy. First teeth are coming in, finally. She's been wanting to learn how to walk recently but no dice there yet, only a lot more spills. Heck, but who knows what she'll be doing in 3 months time.

I put pictures of her up here on Facebook, you can check them out even if you're not a Facebooker.

I'll check back in over the next few weeks so you all know I'm still alive.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Big City

My Dad was in town yesterday, just a brief visit before some meetings he had in the city. So I took the chance to get out with him, do a few things in the big city. Always lots to do here.

First stop was the Royal Ontario Museum downtown. Cool building with the Michael Lee Chin Crystal as the front. Our stop was with a purpose, we were here to see the famous Dead Sea Scrolls which are on exhibit until January (in case you're planning on popping by). It was neat to see in person what is perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of the past decade. Most interesting was how they were found, the lengths that have been gone through to preserve them, the sect that hid them in the caves, etc... Being an archaeologist would be cool if you could discover something as cool as this, say, every month. Otherwise it seems kinda dusty and kinda less fun.

Then we went off to the CBC building downtown to sit in on a pre-taping of The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos.

He's doing a bunch of pre-tapings because the TIFF is in town and so are all the actors (I haven't seen George Clooney or Drew Barrymore yet but supposedly they're here in town).

So we got to see interviews with 3 guests: the experimentally funny A.J. Jacobs (seriously, check him out - ridiculous stuff such as a month of doing whatever his wife told him, a month of saying whatever his wife told him to do, a month of saying whatever came to his mind, a year of living biblically (literally), outsourcing his life to India, etc..); actress Isabella Rossellini (who I can't say I knew); and author Douglas Coupland (whose book we got given free!).
(commercial break with Coupland)

It was a neat experience to see how it all works ("We're going to shoot that ending again") and, heck, it was free to do! Always lots to do in the big city.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Starving Children in Africa

There’s something within me that breaks every time I see a picture a starving African child. It’s normal, I guess, to feel guilt, shame, shock, horror, etc... when I see such pictures. That’s the typical reaction among us ‘decent’ White folk.

This feeling, though, has to be reconciled with the other feelings I feel when I typically see these pictures - disgust and anger towards people or organizations who exploit the stereotype or the image, those who use it as a means to an end.

I’m truly not sure about how to process this reaction and synthesize it all into a coherent response. The images depict an actuality – people die from starvation. There is little doubt of this. And yet there is something more than the picture, something sinister. Images carry meaning beyond what is explicitly presented. Susanne Langer (an art philosopher) said, “A symbol is understood when we conceive the idea it presents.” Much like the symbol of a cross, for example, can mean many things to different people (faith, Christianity, salvation, oppression, death, life), the image of a starving child is more than ‘the truth’. It has come to represent many things: the collective guilt/responsibility/shame of the affluent Western nations (I feel sorry for them), the wealth of the West (you see pictures of people who are obviously not you), the pride/elevation of the West (we have the resources to help), etc...

Not only does the image no longer simply represent starving children around the world (perhaps it once did, meanings change with time), but it has been co-opted by people and agencies as a tool of manipulation and, sometimes, even deceit. In the book, “Road to Hell” a former aid worker documents how the NGO Save the Children markets child sponsorship to the masses, uses false advertising, and spends a large percentage of their budget figuring out how to do it. It’s wilful manipulation.

They know the power of the image, it’s not accidental misuse. A quote I just took off of the World Vision website calls for donations: It would be shameful to wait to see images of starving children stalked by vultures before taking action.

We can even be threatened with more images, it appears. Whatever the case, it works. Money is spent on research to show this, ad agencies or directors are hired, million dollar campaigns initiated. I can accept that not all agencies are perhaps as wilful in their manipulation but it is manipulation nonetheless.

Now, I understand the argument that goes something like this: We all “know” that children are starving and yet we go about our Western lives, purchasing $5 lattes, $50 meals, $150 shoes, etc... The pictures don’t give us any new information but rather bring home what it is truly like to be starving, or at least what it truly looks like to be starving.

And the truly sad thing in all of this, beyond the purposeful exploitation of emotions, beyond our Western-centric approach, is that there’s truth in this argument. Not in the fact that it is inherently true – I don’t think seeing pictures makes us any more aware of what it’s really like to starve or be around starving people (much like a 30hr famine doesn’t really show you how starving people feel). It’s true in that it does prompt response. The whole grand scheme of exploitation depends on you and me, on our feeling guilty enough to send money, to respond in the right way. A recent quote from Geez magazine has an NGO advertising agent say, “Call it McMarketing; it’s all about supply and demand. You want it I need you. I package it. You buy it. I send you another picture for your fridge that reminds you how good you are. I’m happy to oblige....just remember, I’m only the messenger, and I know how you like it.” Images of starving African children work. Studies show it. People have jobs as advertising directors (and salaries paid by your donations) to manipulate images and words in such a way to provoke a response. Not an intellectual response but an emotional one.

And this is the final thing that frustrates me. The only appropriate response to such an advertising campaign, we are told, is to donate money. $40 feeds a child for a month, $100 sends him to school, $50 buys a sheep. Donate now! This approach ignores why the children (and the rest of the people!) are starving. It ignores the globalization of trade, the subsidies paid to Western farmers to ensure we can buy sugar, bread, coffee, etc... for cheaper prices, the increased costs of production because of the introduction of Western fertilizers and pesticides. It ignores the exploitation of the disadvantaged. It ignores the system in favour of treating the symptoms. For however much Bono campaigns for debt relief, for however much organizations raise for disaster relief or fresh water (and it’s not to say that these aren’t good things) – for however much we donate – it ignores the bigger issues.

Not only that, our donations seem to exempt us from having to confront these issues; it assuages our guilt enough to help us continue with what we were doing before. We need to stop blindly submitting to the propaganda (harsh word, I know) and actively question the systems that we are a part of, the system of domination and exploitation, the systems that lead to people starving. But this system of images and donations stupefies us, silences us, and renders us immobile. Our donations are so insignificant in the scheme of things. Governments give more than what is privately donated through NGOs. Remittances (relatives sending money back home) bring more money into Third World nations than Western governments. Trade brings in even more than this. This is my frustration: the images are part of a system that satisfies us with cheap, easy answers without solving anything.

These issues are huge; the books written about them could fill a library and a blog post can’t even begin to summarize them (even if it is a long one like this one!). An image is never just the picture, never just the revealing of a moment of time, never just what you see. It can’t reveal everything (it’s limiting) and yet it has endless possibilities through symbolization. It’s powerful.

I was at church the other night and we were shown a video. The background narrative was a sermon on taking action, on going into the nations. The images, every single one of them, were of African children. It carefully placed images of starving children at the right times (to make a point about how bad things were) and juxtaposed them with pictures of happy, smiling African children (to make a point about how good things could be).

People starve the world over. Gypsies in East Europe. Elderly in Latin America. Mothers in Africa. Children in North Korea. And yet, they are not shown. They don’t carry the same weight, the same meaning, as African children. We all (and please note, I certainly include myself in this) accept this barrage of images as the norm, accepting guilt and pity as the best we can do. The system continues on. Pictures flood the TV. Every week more mailings arrive with pleas for aid. The pictures are like currency, you can bank on it. What are we going to do?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tooth Terrorist

Every child grows up learning about the magical tooth fairy who takes your teeth away and, in their place, leaves such magical things as quarters, candy (to help you lose the rest of your teeth!), etc... When you lose your first tooth you excitedly and gently place the bloody mess on the bed, gently position the pillow over it, lay your head down (imagining you can feel the tooth lying there underneath your head) and try and stay awake long enough to see the tooth fairy, slowly drifting off into fairy dreams. When you wake up the next morning, within seconds you are diving under the pillow to collect your booty.

What you don't learn as a child is that the tooth fairy has an evil step-sister called the Tooth Terrorist. Her job is the opposite one of the fairy: she brings teeth to little children all over the world. She also bring weeping, wailing and the gnashing of teeth (mostly to parents). She turns sweet little cherubs into raging, war-waging, bomb-making little terrorists in the process. She's not a very nice apparition.

At the tender age of 26 I have learned about the evil step-sister and am passing along the knowledge to you. Forgive the possible incoherency, it's early and I've already been up for hours with my very own cherub-turned-terrorist.