Thursday, July 11, 2013


I do no usually write about local politics--or politics in general-on this blog. This is a blog about fibre and fibre arts. I am not a political junkie, one of those people who watches council meetings every two weeks. What I am is a citizen who is engaged in the day-to-day life of my community. And I think it is time for me to say something that has been on my mind for a while.

But first, some context into the title of this post. There is a classic episode of The Simpsons in which a conman sells a monorail system to the people of Springfield that turns out to be somewhat less than what it seemed. If you haven't seen it before, or if you really want an earworm, watch Lyle Lanley work his magic:

I share this clip with you because it came up on my Twitter feed the other night as members of the community were watching the Municipal Council meeting, where our council voted to pay $100,000 to something called Nexus North for a membership (local news link). What, exactly, this membership entitles the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray to, or what benefits the community will see, is yet to be determined. The presentation by the representatives of this "initiative" was filled with inspirational double-speak and jingoisms. There will be synergies and social growth and  collaborations a-plenty. The names of major corporations were casually tossed about. But what was never once mentioned was an actual action, plan, or tangible outcome.

(You can read more buzzwords and catch-phrases here on council member Russell Thomas's blog. This appears to be the most concrete information about Nexus North that appears anywhere on the internet. In an entertaining side note, a Twitter search for @NexusNorth turns up one result, an apparently defunct, Spanish-language porn site. A Google search of the phrase turns up even less. Surely, such an important initiative should have a web-presence here and now in the Information Age?)

Our mayor cannot tell us what this shadowy group does, or will do for our city. Councillors asked why, if the function of this group is too complex and arcane for the average voter to understand, money should be directed there. The local Twitterati had a field day, starting with the aforementioned monorail, and continuing with references to Ponzi schemes and Nigerian princes. But, in my mind, Nexus North is not the only problem that the current council has. It is merely a symptom.

Here is what I think is wrong with our current mayor and council: They have forgotten where they live.

There has been an enormous effort expended by the current city government and administration to make Fort McMurray a "world-class city". Their lives seem to be consumed by the fact that a couple of opinion writers for The National Post and The Globe and Mail have commented that Fort McMurray is dirty, sleazy, or somehow filled with venal, money-grabbing carpetbaggers profiting from the oil boom.  The solution, according to the current council, is to remake Fort McMurray in Toronto's image. According to them, we need to scrap long-standing institutions and geography to create a new, vibrant city centre. We need to tear down businesses and hotels and homes to build epic architecture that reflects our hip, new image. We need art galleries, and bistros, and multiple cultural and entertainment venues.

Now, I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with art galleries and bistros. What I AM saying is that those already exist. Sure, they are in old industrial buildings, or housed inside other existing institutions such as The Suncor Leisure Centre at Mac Island. But we have them. And they are under-utilized. Art galleries and frozen yogurt is awesome, but affordable housing, an adequate transportation system, and decent snow clearing is what makes a city a community people want to live in.

The current council has hired outside consultants, design firms, and planning initiatives to tell the people of Fort McMurray what the future of their city will be. These plans are then presented as a fait accompli, without community consultation. It seems to me, as an ordinary citizen of this city, that the community I have lived in for 31 years is simply being scrapped for a shiny new model that will impress Toronto journalists. They appear to be saying that the outsiders are right: "Fort McMurray is bad and we have to fix it."

I'm all for change, and for grand vision. What I am not for is throwing money at shadows and grasping at tenuous schemes when the basic infrastructure of our city is crumbling. It is mid-July and I have been driving through the same pot-hole on Thickwood Boulevard since April. Traffic is a nightmare of near legendary proportions in the city as poor planning, disorganization and knee-jerk solutions are patched together and discarded. The local aging-in-place centre is bogged down in a bureaucratic quagmire because the city jumped in with a grand vision and no plan.

I am not an urban planner, or a politician. I am just a human being who wants her home to be a place that she can live. The goal of the Municipal Council's grandiose plans is supposedly to attract educated, white-collar workers to our community, and to make our community a place where the fly-in camp population can move their families to settle. They claim they need a more sophisticated city to make that happen, but I can tell you right now, as an educated, white-collar person, that when I look at a community, I do not assess it by the number of art galleries. I look at transportation and health care and sanitation. I look at whether or not the local government ensures that the infrastructure of the community meets the needs of the community. I look at the people of the community, and how much the local government values the community for what it is.

It is not, in my opinion, the job of our local elected officials to rebuild and remake our city. It is their job to nurture the city we have, warts and all, as it grows, organically, into that "world-class city" that it can be.

In that Simpsons episode monorail did not make Springfield a better place to be. It turned out to be a disaster. A monorail is not going to make Fort McMurray a better place to be. Go build your monorail somewhere else.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Tiny Ripples

Well, the mayhem of June is over and we are coasting into the hot, sunny days of July. Another Fibre Week is behind me, and I am stopping to catch my breath before I start harassing inviting instructors to join us for next year. It is a time to rest, and to reflect.

This was a milestone year at Fibre Week in many ways. This year is the centennial of the establishment of both the community of Olds and Olds College. It is also the 25th anniversary of the Master Spinner Program. This was the year that we saw the most graduates in one year from the Master Spinner Program, five in all. And this is the year that we said goodbye to the man who has been at the helm of Fibre Week for the past 12 years, Otto Pahl.

There was much talk of legacies and the impact of the actions of innovators, leaders, and decision makers on the lives of those of us who have come to love Fibre Week. New scholarships were introduced, the vision of those who first proposed the Master Spinner Program was lauded, the impact of Otto's interest in this quirky little program and his influence in its growth was celebrated. I was personally thanked for my dedication to the monumental task of creating the Fibre Week instructor roster and workshop schedule again and again. Great, sweeping decisions, long, arduous tasks, and gigantic risks were all publicly praised.

However, what I learned at Fibre Week this year was that the big things don't matter quite as much as the little things. Sure, friends and strangers alike told me stories of how decisions I had made in the dark of winter in my little studio had introduced them to a skill, an instructor, or an idea that had changed their life. And, let me tell you, it is a wondrous feeling to know that you have had that impact on someone. But, what struck me most in this year of celebrating big accomplishments was the number of people who came forward to thank me for the tiny gestures.

We rarely get to see the impact of the little things we do each day, like letting someone in the grocery store line go ahead of us, or smiling at someone on the street, but for some reason, this Fibre Week, I was repeatedly reminded that even our simplest gestures can have great impact.

I have two stories to share that are sharp illustrations of this point.

My journey to Fibre Week this year was epic in the scope and number of minor disasters that occurred en route, starting with a flat tire before I left home delaying my departure by two days, followed by a series of miscommunications and missed appointments. Once I actually got on the road, the miscommunications continued to plague me, and then the brand new tire that I had waited two days for failed. In the pouring rain, in Red Deer. After the lovely gentleman from AMA Roadside Assistance had put my spare on, I limped to the local franchise of the tire company that had installed said new tire, only to be treated with blatant sexism ("Well, honey, I don't know that I can help you...) and even more blatant lies about the cost and availability of a new tire.

After much teeth-grinding and Googling, I discovered another franchise located in Olds, which is where I wanted to be anyway, and we set off on the back roads, driving slowly and carefully on the emergency spare. The Olds franchise was happy to help me, and I worked my way back to the College.  Where I was immediately met with chaos and panic. The College was serving as an evacuation centre for the victims of the flooding that was impacting much of Southern Alberta at that time and this was causing much confusion with the housing staff. Keys were being mixed up and double bookings abounded. Instructors were stranded by mudslides and washouts. Mayhem ruled.

There was not much I could do about any of it, though, so I decided to move into my condo. Exhausted, cranky, and overwhelmed, I grabbed an armful of stuff and trudged through the rain to my accommodation. I opened the door and there was a young woman who looked very familiar to me--I presumed I recognized her from the Master Spinner Program--who said something like "Hey, looks like we get to be room mates!"

To which I replied something along the lines of "Huh."

Not really smooth and eloquent, but apropos to the moment.

The evening progressed, I ate and had a glass of wine and chatted with good friends. I went back to my condo, where my room mate, whose name I had now remembered, was already in her room. I went to bed, thinking nothing more than "Thank goodness I am warm and dry and all is well."

The next day was a busy one for me, so after a brief exchange of good mornings and small talk about the weather with my roomie, I went about my rounds, making sure instructors had everything they needed, familiarizing newbies with the campus, and shooting interviews for Fibre Optic. I had a quick supper with my son, then headed back for a quiet evening in the condos.

My room mate was in, and I poured a glass of wine and sat down to chat with her. By now, I had fully remembered who she was--she had taken a class from me last year at Fibre Week. And, unfortunately for her, she had been there when I had my momentous meltdown. And worse yet, she had felt that she may have triggered it by raising the question about the handout that threw me for a loop. And then I had been rude and abrupt with her as I moved in.

A moment of personal doubt, and a few tiny, careless acts, and I had given this poor woman the idea that I disliked her. Which was not the least bit true, but that was how she had seen me. Hopefully, we have cleared the air, but the point that even my unconscious actions could impact someone this way really threw me for a loop.

The other story is a happier one. As I mentioned before, there were five graduates from the Master
Spinner Program this year. I was fortunate enough to have taught 3 of them, so I know I somehow influenced them, for good or for bad. But when I congratulated one of the two I had not taught, she thanked me profusely for helping her so much through the program.

Now, I had chatted with her. I had gone out for dinner with her, or sat with her at lunch. But I had never taught her. Never marked her books. Never helped her with her homework. How had I helped her through the program?

So, she told me the story of her Level One year, when she was overwhelmed and frustrated and scared that she couldn't handle the amount of work ahead of her. She was headed back to her condo, admitting defeat and thinking she didn't fit in. She was passing a bunch of Level Six students who were heading out for dinner, and one of them asked if she wanted to come along. That would have been me.

I don't remember that dinner. I have no idea who was there, or what we talked about, or where we ate. But SHE remembered that dinner as the moment she realized that she was welcome and that she fit in. A simple, careless gesture on my part--"Hey, want to join us for dinner?"--was a turning point in her life.

What both of these encounters reminded me was that it is not the great things that we do, but the little, tiny ones, that change the world. We impact people without even recognizing it with the little things we do every day.

When you drop a great big rock into a pool of water, there is a great big splash and everyone notices. When you drop a tiny pebble into that same pool of water, there are just tiny ripples that are barely noticeable. But those tiny ripples spread outward and go on and on, and we may never know where they end up.

So, while I will continue to drop big rocks and try to make a splash, what I'm really going to do is remember that I can accomplish much more by dropping the tiny pebbles and making those tiny ripples.