Wednesday, 12 December 2007

A Rant against Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer

I understand that Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is a local classic and children's favorite. I have never liked it, partly because it usurps air space better devoted to herald angels, and partly because there is something quite warped in the story line.

What exactly is the life lesson that kids are getting here?
At first, it looks good. A bullied underdog, or rather under-deer is recognized for his special gift and becomes a hero. So far, so good.

But then we get this line: "Then all the reindeer loved him"
Really! Our boy is famous and now all his former tormentors want to be his friend? This is supposed to be the happy ending? What does this teach children about the nature of friendship?

A true friend stands by you while you are being bullied, he does not do a sudden turnaround because some higher authority decides you have some use. YUCK.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Flaggers, Unsung Heroes of the Road.

originally posted on Yahoo 360 May 1 2007

Because we have been more grasshopper than ant for much of our lives, we end up working past pensionable age. My husband has been doing traffic control. No, the picture is definitely not him. I wrote this little article about the sort of work he does for the local newspapers.
Flaggers, Unsung Heroes of the Road.

The phone rings just past 7 AM.
A voice asks for my husband. There has been an avalanche on the road to Trout Lake and they need traffic controllers right now. He may have to be there for 10 or 12 hours, so bring some sandwiches.
We were just about to have breakfast, but within fifteen minutes he is packed and gone.

Other times the call has come late in the evening. A truck may have gone off the road somewhere, or there's been a landslide, and someone needs to be there through the night to alert drivers to the hazard.

How is a person supposed to stay awake all night without a nap in the afternoon first? Somehow they do it.

Flaggers are supposed to be able to jump into action like fire fighters or ambulance personnel, but without any of the prestige or monetary rewards.

Even without emergencies the world of traffic control is full of last minute arrangements.
It is not unusual to get a call after 9 PM, asking you to be somewhere nearly 3 hours away by 8 the next morning.

Do the math:
That means getting out the door before 5AM, which means you should have been in bed with your gear packed well before 9PM if you want to get your 8 hours sleep.

Flaggers stand on their feet all day in all kinds of weather and have to stay alert through hours of boredom.
I couldn't do it to save my life, let alone someone else's.

Then there is the danger of being overrun by aggressive drivers, and the aggravation of people who take their anger at a delay out on you.

At least many years ago it used to pay well. These days the pay is just a bit above minimum wage.
The fierce competition between contractors is largely subsidized by the low wages of the people on the road. All hail the dogma of the free market.

So folks, next time you get stopped by a flagger, don't give them the finger. Give them a big thumbs up and a thanks for an essential job well done.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Merry Christmas from a Taoist Pagan.

Hark the Herald Angels! Bring on the Nativity scenes! Send in the Carols! In the name of the Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Crone.

What I mean by the label is: Nature is the connection I use to commune with the Great Mystery. I am happy to call it The Great Mystery, the Tao, and let it go at that.

I have no desire to revive tribal gods of yester-year. The one we have left is doing enough damage. Parts of the tribal history AKA the Old Testament are truly grotesque. All that slaying and smiting. For the record: some of my ancestors belonged to that tribe.

My view of gods is rather Pratchettian. As The Great One (Terry Pratchett) so eloquently puts it, the difference between gods and devils is rather like that between freedom fighters and terrorists. Let sleeping gods lie.

Mystics of all religions get along just fine. As a Christian theologian said (sorry, forgot his name): “God is a metaphor for God.” Amen.

AND (and, not but) I was raised as a good little Christian girl. Part of me will always resonate to those particular rituals. Rituals feed the soul. I love Christmas Carols. The real kind: Herald Angels, Oh Night Divine, Once in Royal David’s City, and so on. They are simply too beautiful to be reserved solely for Christian believers.
I did another post  about how they became part of my Dutch childhood.

We used to hear carols over the airwaves in the Advent season. When did that change? As early as 1992 I wrote a letter to CBC radio complaining about their lack. It went more or less like this:

If the aim of losing traditional carols is to avoid offense to minorities, minorities and those who champion them need to make a clear distinction between wrongful discrimination and the simple inconvenience of being a minority. That seems to get mixed up.

When someone is denied schooling, employment or housing strictly on the basis of ethnic identity, skin colour, religion, gender, etc, that is wrongful discrimination. Most people of goodwill agree that everyone deserves an equal chance at the goodies.

But when a Muslim, Hindu or Atheist has to lay eyes on a plastic baby Jesus in the mall, that is merely an inconvenience. It is NOT religious persecution or discrimination. If you want to feel real discrimination, try being a Bahai in Iran or a Christian or avowed Atheist in Saudi Arabia.

I am all in favor of a strict separation between church and state. But I always thought that that simply meant that the state would refrain from dictation in matters of personal religion.

In my opinion public schools should indeed be secular. That doesn’t mean anti-religious, just neutral. If you want your child to be indoctrinated in your personal faith, take care of it at home or send her to private school.
In my grandson’s school in Greater Vancouver, B.C. Christian kids and those of European extraction are as much a minority as everyone else.
In that context it makes sense to change the traditional Christmas Pageant into a bland midwinter celebration.

But when did we get all paranoid about displays of religion in public space? Are our own convictions so pathetically insecure that we cannot handle being exposed to another view? What does that have to do with freedom?

True beauty has been replaced with insipid winter songs that reek of plastic and the Mall. That obscene Reindeer story deserves a rant all on its own.

I say: bring back the carols. They feed the soul on a deep level.
And when the time comes for Diwali, Hanukkah, Eid, or other celebrations, let’s hear the songs that go with those.

Let’s celebrate all festivals instead of none!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Sinterklaas, the real thing

Zie ginds komt de Stoomboot
Uit Spanje weer aan
Hij brengt ons Sint Nicolaas
Ik zie hem al staan
Hoe huppelt zijn paardje
Het dek op en neer
Hoe waaien de wimpels
al heen en al weer!
(traditional Sinterklaas arrival song)
December 5 is the one and only day in the year that I would rather be in "the old country" than in my beloved Kootenay mountain paradise. It is Sinterklaas avond, Saint Nicolas Eve.

The pictures on this post show the entry into Amsterdam, my hometown. 
Taken with permission from

The fun starts weeks ahead, with the official arrival of Sinterklaas by steamer from Spain, above.
The Saint is accompanied by his faithful Moorish servant, Zwarte Piet. (Black Peter) Zwarte Piet is sometimes alone, but sometimes, like at the official entry into the city, there are many.

Things are getting a bit complicated in these multicultural times. In 2007 I wrote: "I am glad to see that this most Dutch of all traditions is still going strong. Zwarte Piet is dressed in a sixteenth century style costume and is in outrageous blackface. Sorry folks, no offense is intended to anyone."

We used to joke that in these PC times the question was whether Zwarte Piet would be forced out, or on the contrary could only be played by people with the right natural colouring. That question is no longer a joke. Amsterdam has now officially banned blackface Piet and replaced him with "sooty piet". 

My reaction when the discussion first started was resistance, but now I think the time has come.

Many years ago we used to wait for hours for the entry parade, just like this. Dad took oldest brother Jaap and myself, the twins stayed home with Mom. I used to feel so sorry for her! It never occurred to me that waiting in a crowd in the late November chill might not be the ultimate pleasure.

In case anyone wonders why a bishop who hails originally 
from Myra in what is now Turkey arrives from Spain:
Once upon a time the Netherlands were ruled by the Spanish king. That's what happens when your rulers are determined by the succession of  royal families, the Hapsburg in this case.
The English and French never quite got over Eleanor of Aquitaine, same idea. The Dutch anthem, written for the first William of Orange in the 16th century, still mentions loyalty to the King of Spain.

Just before the Dutch kicked the Spaniards out of the Netherlands Ferdinand and Isabella had been chasing the Moors out of Spain. A pity, since life had been good in the cities of Anadalusia, but so it goes. Perhaps that is why Piet's costume dates from that time.

Zwarte Piet carries a switch, and a big bag. The switch is for giving kids who have been naughty a good hiding (wie zoet is krijgt lekkers, wie stout is de roe). The bag holds toys, but can also be used to carry really hardcore bad kids back to Spain once the tour is over. Legend is vague about the punishment that awaits them there, the vague threat was enough.

Then there is the white horse! Zachtjes gaan de paardevoehoetjes, trippeltrappel trippeltrap.
It carries Sinterklaas over the roof tops. Zwarte Piet drops presents down the chimney. 
Sinterklaas is the patron saint of the city, so he wears the emblem of the city on his mitre.

As soon as Sinterklaas is in the country, somewhere in late November, children can place their shoe by the chimney in the evening and find it filled with a small gift or at least some candy in the morning. Certain candies are only seen at that time of year. There is TaaiTaai, a chewy sort of gingerbread, and the wonderful thick speculaas, in the shape of Sinterklaas. Pepernoten, little ginger cookie balls especially used to be thrown around by Zwarte Piet, small sugar animals, and chocolate letters. This was one time of year when I wished my name was Wilma or Mieke instead of Ien, since one usually receives one's initial. People usually had mercy and gave me an H, for my last name van der Hout.

Setting the shoe was a ritual: we had to sing for our candy, and sometimes we left a carrot or some water for the horse. Sinterklaas Kapoentje, the song sung by the little Dutch orphan in the original "Miracle on 34th street" was the most used for this occasion.

After weeks of anticipation it was finally time for THE evening. This is, or at least was, the big gift giving occasion. Christmas was a church and family affair.

There is more to a good successful Sinterklaas than a pile of loot. Once the givers reach a certain age they are expected to take extra trouble with at least some of the gifts.
The ultimate is to present a gift wrapped in a "surprise" (pronounced the French way) that somehow says something about the recipient. For example, you have bought a watch for a fanatical soccer player in the family. You might create a papier mache soccer ball, and hide the watch inside.
And then there is the poem, to be read by the one who receives the gift. It doesn't have to be great literature, as long it rimes and is funny.

For my Dutch, Flemish or Afrikaans readers, here is part of one that Dad made for Mom. It went on about her habit of interrupting his reading with her puzzle questions. She did the devilishly difficult cryptogram every Saturday, and would not rest till she solved the darned thing.
Pappa zat rustig in zijn stoel
En Ma keek met een ernstig smoel
In de krant
En langs de kant
stonden woordjes
aaneengeregen als koordjes

This is our family in 1954.
I had good parents, and appreciate them more with each
passing year.

And that is enough nostalgia!