I fear this anecdote I’m about to tell you may be all too familiar. On a fairly regular basis, my wife and I are asked by one of our daughters, or their husbands, to drive a grandchild to school, to buy a jug of milk on the way home, or to borrow a tool or something. Most of these requests come to us on our phones, but they’re usually preceded by that characteristic “ping” in our pockets, signalling a text.
“Can you pick up the kids?” the request reads in a bubble on the screen.
Whether my answer is “Yes” or “No,” I generally grab the phone – often my land-line – and call to find out if everything is all right, if there’s an emergency or not. For me it’s instinctive. My reaction is and has always been that I can gather more information by listening to a voice face-to-face, than if I wait for the bubble with the three dots (illuminating in sequence like a Mustang car turn signal) to give me an answer.
I met the man at a party. He told me he’d just experienced the worst week of his life. He said he’d been rounded up in a Quebec City dragnet and that the police told him they had the authority to keep him in jail indefinitely. I was all ears. I figured I could somehow benefit from listening to his story. Better than that, as the host of a regular radio broadcast, I hoped I could get his story on the air.
“I was a victim of the War Measures Act,” he told me.
“Would you come on my radio show?” I asked him. “I’d like you to tell your story.”
As it turns out, his experience was indeed one that every Canadian wanted to hear at that moment.
Not so long ago, the talk in our oldtimers’ hockey dressing room turned to the usual grousing. The Leafs likely won’t make the playoffs, one guy moaned. Somebody else complained that township roads weren’t being ploughed quickly or thoroughly enough this winter. Then, Pearson airport became the target. In the recent ice storm, weren’t the delays horrendous? Wasn’t it criminal that travellers were forced to remain on the tarmac for hours?
And, just for good measure, aren’t those sunshine destination airfares outrageous? And I thought about something one of our daughters had said, when I complained about a similar problem, delay or cost.
“It’s a First World problem, Dad,” she pointed out quietly.
“Yes, but…” and I stopped myself. She was absolutely right.
This week, I caught both the federal budget unveiling in the House of Commons and the political and public response. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that he would run the country’s business for about $250 billion, running a $2.9 billion deficit with an additional $3 billion contingency just in case the economy goes south. He suggested he would stay the course “to weather any future global economic storms,” in his speech in the
Commons. I’m sure Flaherty’s done the math, but Canada’s deficit and contingency alone would cover much of the assets of many Third World countries such as Bangladesh, Congo, Liberia, Eritrea and Afghanistan combined. In other words, deficits and contingencies and economic storms are all relative.
I watched Global TV’s coverage of Opposition leader Tom Mulcair assess the budget. The NDP leader complained that there are 300,000 more Canadians looking for work than during the economic crisis of 2008; in particular, he worried that 260,000 young Canadians are still looking for work. Down the hall, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau worried the budget didn’t offer any hope of growth or a vision for the future; he scoffed that it was an electoral budget, promising to balance the books just in time for next year’s federal election.
“We’re not seeing any vision,” Trudeau scolded, but then, that’s what Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’s job is – to complain.
This week, I conducted a bit of a state-of-the-union survey among my journalism students at the college where I teach. They decried tuition fees. They wished cell phone rates weren’t so high. They hated the cafeteria food. And when I asked why some of them hadn’t arrived on time for their news reporting class, they said it was scheduled too early in the day.
It was just after 11:30 a.m. and – to some – that was an ungodly hour to be expected to perform thinking, reasoning or any other creative skills. When I informed them that I had originally intended to schedule the class for 8:30 a.m., they responded with such indignation, you’d have thought I’d insulted their family name.
“That’s ridiculous,” one of them said. “How could anybody function under those conditions?”
The reaction gave me pause. I remembered a personal experience that had profoundly affected my sense of perspective. In the summer of 2010, I travelled to Krakow, Poland. I met a guide, who had offered to assist me as I planned a subsequent trip leading a tour of Canadians through that part of Eastern Europe. I asked him if he would get me to a small town just outside Krakow, called Oświęcim, where during the Second World War, the Nazis constructed a prison (Auschwitz) and concentration camp (Birkenau) to systematically exterminate political prisoners and the Jews of Europe.
“The tour will last three hours,” the on-site guide told us at the Auschwitz interpretive centre. “And I hope you brought umbrellas.”
I hadn’t. But it didn’t matter. The rain was pouring down with such intensity and volume as we began the tour of Auschwitz prison, that most of the people in our group were drenched within the first 10 minutes of the visit. And because the content of the tour was so severe and depressing, only a handful of us remained by the time the three-hour tour had concluded.
Much of what the former prison contained haunted me. The cells in which the condemned spent their last hours depressed me for days. The photographs of the men and women tortured and killed stick in my head even now. And when I got to Birkenau and realized how many thousands of Jews the Nazis had crammed inside those former horse barns, I cried. But what stays with me most of all, was the sight inside one of the prison barns of a lone faucet and basin, the sole washing facility for hundreds and hundreds of prisoners there.
To this day, I cannot turn on a tap, brush my teeth, take a shower or pour a glass of water without flashing back to that solitary faucet and basin. I guess it’s the mental equivalent of reminding myself – anytime I complain – that mine are “are just First World problems.”