Sunday, May 24th, 2009


Filed under: Mark,money — Tags: — alison @ 15:10

I am freshly waxed, having thriftily engaged Mark to do the honours.

Bicycle shorts are protecting my thighs.

Friday, March 6th, 2009

Wealth, class and dysfunction.

Filed under: class,dysfunction,ignorance,money — alison @ 07:47

An old draft. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it at the time – possibly too emotional, possibly revealing myself as too ignorant, too judgemental, too pretenious, but mostly too ignorant. Maybe I felt that it was too apologetic, protesting too much. But ok, I am ignorant. Might as well post it now.

I was called out recently for referring to ‘the dysfunctional poor.’ It was suggested that I really meant ‘the working class.’ I didn’t think so, but I realised that I didn’t know what ‘the working class’ means. I looked it up in Wikipedia and it turns out that ‘working class’ can mean so many different things in informal speech that it’s pretty much useless. (Wikipedia suggests that ‘the underclass’ is more like what I really meant, but… so monolithic?) Academics have various definitions for ‘the working class’ based on income or marxian theory, but as I am not an academic I’m not going to try to use them.

It’s interesting that poverty still carries the stench of shame, that calling someone poor generates a reprimand.

Trying to identify what dysfunction means to me I have been thinking about people I have known (some better than others, but I’ve met them all in person).

*** *** ***
I think violent sociopaths are dysfunctional, but that’s a purely personal feeling. You can be a violent sociopath millionaire corporate lawyer and lots of people will think that’s just peachy. You will probably spend less time in jail than if you are a violent sociopath pimp, and the spending time in jail part is usually what gets considered dysfunction.

*** *** ***
Doing time in prison more than once is dysfunctional – that is, if it’s not part of a conscious protest.

There are lots of things that will increase your chances of doing time, like being poor or Native (or in the US, African-American) none of which are inherently dysfunctional. But most people have staying out of prison somewhere on their agenda, and if you are unable to manage that for yourself… there’s a problem somewhere, and it’s manifesting itself in your life.

*** *** ***
A family dynamic that includes filicide is dysfunctional.

If as you enter your teen years you realise that your violent sociopath father will end up murdering you if you stick around, money means you can be sent to private boarding schools. Poverty means you’ll have to run away and live on the street.

*** *** ***
Alcoholism is dysfunctional.

Again, a personal prejudice. Perhaps the things for which alcoholism increases the risk – road accidents, fights, FAS, cirrhosis, too many children, suicide – are the actual problems and alcoholism merely a convenient target for finger-pointing. Whichever, even a little money makes things better. Remember the Temperance movement, and Demon Rum, and Taking the Pledge? People drink just as much as they did in the 1920s but Demon Rum isn’t taking the rap it used to. Breadwinners get paid more and are less likely to spend the entire week’s paycheque in one evening at the local pub. Families are less likely to be dependent on a single breadwinner. Even if they are, welfare means that a parent can leave a violent partner who spends all their money getting drunk or high. We have Al-Anon to replace the WCTU because those social changes don’t make all the crummy stuff associated with alcoholism go away. Welfare isn’t enough either, so the ex-wife on the top of the hill in Westmount getting both alimony and child support has easier choices to make.

*** *** ***
Sexual assault of kids by family members is dysfunctional. Money doesn’t change that, but it affects a parent’s child care choices.

If you don’t have money for a babysitter, it’s possible you would leave your toddler with your creepy brother-in-law when you go out for the day and tell yourself he isn’t that creepy because you don’t have a choice. And you might come back to find your toddler dead and sodomised in the dumpster behind your apartment building.

If you don’t have money for a babysitter, it’s possible you might let your mother look after your six-year-old daughter after school. Recalling what your father did to you when you were that age, you would warn your daughter not to let herself be in a room alone with her grandfather. And when you saw her bruises in the bathtub in the evening, you would know what she had done and you would whip her for having disobeyed your instructions.

Not being able to pay for childcare when you need it – that’s poverty, and it sucks. Whipping your child for getting herself raped – that’s dysfunction. But you wouldn’t see that particular dysfunction if appropriate childcare were available.

*** *** ***
Keeping your kids out of primary and secondary school so that they can keep you company is dysfunctional. Money doesn’t seem to have much impact either way.

*** *** ***
Preventing your kids from attending university is dysfunctional.

Parents may refuse to fill out financial statements for aid applications and/or decline to fund any aspect of their children’s university education. Either way the children aren’t eligible for financial aid and will have a very hard time. The student in this situation who receives an inheritance – even a small one – will be greatly helped.

*** *** ***
Repeatedly beating your school-age children into unconsciousness is dysfunctional.

If you live in a single family home, you can shut the windows and the neighbours won’t hear the screams. If you live in an apartment, you’ll upset the neighbours. They’ll have to figure out how to cope. They might or might not interfere, but either way relations will be tense.

*** *** ***
Setting fire to animals is dysfunctional.

If you live in a single-family home and set fire to your parents’ $800 show pekinese in the basement, your parents may discreetly take the animal to the vet for treatment and leave it there for placement somewhere gentler. Your neighbours will be none the wiser. If you set fire to one of the many cats trying to make a living in your traditional working class neighbourhood alley, your neighbours know who you are. One of them might retrieve the animal and take it to the vet, thus starting a career as a cat lady.

*** *** ***
So, that’s what I mean by dysfunction. Violence, spite and alcoholism. Universal, sure, but money can absorb some of the mess and limit the damage – even if only cosmetically. It’s a middle-class list that will offend many people because it labels individuals and not the societies they are a part of. But that’s my point: violence, spite and alcoholism are not themselves the domain of any particular sector of society. When I referred to the ‘dysfunctional poor,’ I was thinking of people caught up in dysfunction who don’t have access to money to mitigate the damage – so it’s out there hurting for all too see.

What do you mean by dysfunction?

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

a bee for my bonnet

Filed under: challenges and memes,children,consuming,dogs — alison @ 21:31

I finally went to my suit store and for a little over $400 I bought:
– two lined, tailored suits;
– a soft, unlined fitted jacket;
– a lined skirt.

I am still dreaming about how I can match everything with t-shirts, scarves and tights. Fun!

In other news, I have finally found something to become obsessed with as I transition into my age-appropriate role of batty menopausal pest. (Running the world will just have to wait until I’m post-menopausal, as per Margaret Mead.) The Riot for Austerity. It’s a project in which people set themselves the goal “to cut their emissions by 90% of what the average person in [Australia, Canada or] the US consumes – the approximate amount people in the rich world need to reduce by in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming.”

Which means in my case:

1. Using only 10% of the average Canadian’s annual use of 1,200 litres of gasoline, so 240 litres per year for our household of two.

2. Using only 10% of the electricity of the average Canadian’s 17,000 kW-hour per year, so only 3,400 kW hour for our household.

3. Using only 10% of the heating and cooking energy of the average Canadian. I’m not sure how to calculate this, but if I use the US figures from the site that would mean 285 litres of heating oil per year.

4. Reducing garbage production to 10% of the average Canadian’s 1.35 kg of municipal waste per day. Our allowance will thus be 135 g each per day.

5. Consuming only 10% of the water of the average Canadian household’s daily 1,000 litres of water, which means each of us would use no more than 50 litres per day.

6. Spending only 10% of what the average Canadian spends on consumer goods. That would mean capping at $1,600 per year for our household. That will cover all clothes, toiletries, recreation, household maintenance etc. for two people for a year.

7. Reducing the impact of purchased food by 90%. That would mean that if I purchase 20 food items in a week, I’d use 14 home- or locally-produced items, 5 bulk dry items, and only 1 processed or out of season thing.

The idea is to pick from one to seven goals and within a year, make the infrastructure changes necessary to meet the goal(s) and maintain them after the year is up. I like the idea of this project because nobody’s saying “recycling my newspapers has the magical effect of making the impact of my consumption on the world disappear.” (Bonus! If people are actually achieving all these goals I can forgive them for breeding, which is psychologically beneficial.)

I’m not sure which, if any, of the goals I could meet. We may already be meeting the water one (oops, nope, I water the garden). With a little effort we could meet the food one, and I think we’re already not far off the heating oil one. No idea about electricity. Consumer goods would be a radical change (see beginning of this post). Garbage though – it already takes at least 135 g per day to take care of Pepe’s little incontinence problem. Enlisting his cooperation for my pet project will take some doing.

The other reason I like this project: when I am laid off and not working and rampant inflation has taken hold, being broke will be repackaged as virtue.

*** *** ***
Now, I wonder what Mark is going to say when he finds out.

Sunday, January 11th, 2009


I often have interesting conversations with taxi drivers, but it’s usually me who starts them.

Yesterday I gave my destination and we discussed the route. Then the driver cautiously asked me if I were Québécoise pure-laine? Well, I said, I’m anglophone but I’m born here.

Because, rushed on my driver, he had read a story in the newspaper that morning* and couldn’t stop thinking about two countries, on two continents, separated by history and religion but united in their misery. La Guinée, in Africa, and Haïti, where he was born.

He was satisfied with his life in Canada, he wanted me to know that. His children didn’t eat steak every day, but they could have meat every week. Canada is a good country, built by people who were not his parents, and he was grateful for the welcome he had been offered, the opportunity to make a life here. But he couldn’t stop looking back to his people in Haïti, feeling for their suffering.

Yes, I said, and feeling responsible but helpless and not knowing what to do. I told him I’d lived in Nigeria in the seventies when people were doing very well, that I knew a little about how people lived who didn’t have a lot of stuff, and even a little about what children looked like who didn’t have enough to eat. That I felt a bond with people in other countries and circumstances that I had no idea how to act on.

Yes, he said. One doesn’t need to have a lot of stuff to be able to care for a family. His father had been a cultivator and he had worked with him. They rotated crops with the seasons, rice and yams and vegetables. In between crops, his father fished. There was always something to do. His father had also been a judge. This was in the time of Papa Duvalier. He had disappeared one day. Both his father and his mother. The children had all found their way out of the country. It had been hard, but the children were now all over the world and managing fine. Even their cousins had left.

But now, he said, Haitian rice farmers can’t make a living any more. They can’t compete with the price of rice imported from the US, where agriculture is heavily subsidised. When rice can be bought so cheaply, people would rather buy it than grow it themselves, so they leave the farms and go to the city. But of course there is no work in the city. People struggle, women prostitute themselves.

Yes, I said, and you and I look on from our comfortable spots and don’t know what to do. I told him my father had recently returned from Bangladesh and was struggling trying to help a woman he had made friends with there. He was helping her, but it was hard. It’s hard for one person to help another person, for a country to help another country. And for one person, like him or me, to help a country – it’s very hard to know what to do.

The kind of work my parents do makes some difference directly. The kind of work I do does not. I can only donate to local and international aid organisations, but it doesn’t feel right, or like enough.

Yes, my taxi driver said, he gives to aid organisations too. To Centraide and Jeunesse au Soleil. But they’re all local.

Yes, I said, to support international aid means donating to different organisations. And then it can be hard to know if the help being offered is really useful; for instance, free american-grown rice is even worse for farmers than cheap american-grown rice. I contribute to one that gives agricultural animals. The people who receive them must commit to breeding the animals and sharing the offspring. It sounds like a good program, though I can’t be sure of its impact in practice.

My taxi driver got very excited at the thought of country people receiving such a useful and community-minded gift as breeding animals, but pointed out that it takes so much more. There has to be water, for instance. And transportation. And fertiliser. And there has to be a market.

You know, I said, we aren’t going to solve the world’s problems parked here in your taxi. But I will shake your hand and wish you a good and happy new year, and know that your frustrations are shared.

He shook my hand, and thanked me for telling him about people who work in international aid, who travel and care. He feels better now, knowing that he isn’t alone in caring.

I feel better too, knowing that I’m not alone in my lack of direction.

Happy new year to all, and may we continue to shake hands with our neighbours and share our challenges!


* That would have been these articles:

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009


Filed under: business,consuming,economy,sewing,unwanted knowledge — alison @ 19:44

I went on a little stroll today to buy sewing notions. The fabric store I hit first was out of what I needed, so I headed up the Plaza St-Hubert. One of the three dressmaker supply stores on the strip had disappeared; another was closed (for the week?) and the third was open but also out of what I needed. So, onwards and upwards to the fabric stores above Jean Talon, where I found what I needed and more.

I love the Plaza. It’s four blocks of stores with glass-roofed sidewalks, known throughout Montreal as a centre for wedding dresses, white shoes, and MOBs. There are both a Salvation Army store and a Renaissance. You can get furniture overruns; $20 shoes and $300 shoes; slutty underwear and medical foundation garments; luggage; clothes for men and women, kids and grownups, skinnies and fatties; electronics; housewares and kitchen equipment; handmade items from India and Africa; sewing machines. You can mail a letter, get your legs waxed, sign up for driving lessons and send money overseas. You can duck through an alley and go to a peep show before you start work in the morning. North of the Plaza are the remains of the old needletrade sector, with fabric stores and jobbers supplying and buying from manufacturers. There’s a Vietnamese restaurant and a Roi du Smoked Meat, but it isn’t really a place for strolling and munching aimlessly; it’s for people who have a purpose.

When I first moved to the neighbourhood I found the street a bit sad, a bit soulless. In the past few years though it’s picked up, a busy place for working people. But today I noticed something had changed.

On the way down I counted:
– Between De Castelnau and Jean-Talon: two empty store fronts, one going out of business sale.
– Between Jean-Talon and Bélanger: two empty store fronts, two going out of business sales.
– Between Bélanger and St-Zotique: four empty store fronts.
– Between St-Zotique and Beaubien: one empty store front.
– Also about five signs advertising commercial space available for rent over the storefronts.

I think this is the worst I’ve ever seen on this street.


Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

making shopping more complicated

Filed under: consuming — alison @ 07:05

At the end of the year I like to make an expedition to Artefact, a local boutique that has seen more ambitious days, and buy one or two work suits during their 30% off sale. Mark agitates for me to go in February when they have a 70% off sale, but I don’t like to wait because by that point I’m unlikely to be able to find a matching jacket and skirt in my size.

So this year I popped in to see what they had. I was the only customer in the store and the racks were full. No shortage of selection. So this year I’ll be waiting for the 70% off sale for the first time. I feel bad about it. If they close, I’ll know it’s my fault.

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