Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Sometimes living off the grid, in the bush, miles from humanity, it’s easy to fade into the background and not get involved. But after 30 years of activism old habits are hard to break. Today, as always, there is no shortage of causes to be pursued. I continue to write letters and sit down regularly with my elected representatives, and appear before my township council. I always liked the quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead that goes something like this;
“Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has."
I like to take this to its lowest common denominator and remind myself it’s pretty amazing what an individual can accomplish too.
When our daughters were young, Michelle found a great book for me to read called “How To Father Successful Daughters” by Nicky Marone that suggested some strategies for fathers with daughters. It had many great ideas, one of which was that it is important to choose female professionals in your life so that your daughters see women in a wide range of roles. So it was no accident that our accountant, our lawyer, our real estate agent, our dentist and our family doctor were all women. When Nicole and Katie hear the word “Doctor” they envision a female. Right now I’m looking for a forester to help me with some woodlot management and as always I am trying to find a female forester, even though my daughters have grown up and left home. Old habits die hard.
When we lived in the city and our daughters were young, we often headed up to my grandmother’s cottage in Muskoka, a vacation area north of Toronto. I’ve been enjoying this cottage since I was a toddler and so it was wonderful to be able to share it with my own children. When I was a teenager there was a water ski show at the local park put on by group training for competitions. It was a fun Tuesday night with males and females doing all sorts of wonderful tricks on water-skis. After the show the water-skiers wandered throughout the crowd collecting money to fund their training. It was simple, unadulterated fun.
I hadn’t been to the ski show for a number of years when I took our daughters for their very first time. The show was now all fancy and corporate. It was sponsored by a company promoting their audio gear. The show now had a professional commentator on a sound system. Right away I noticed that the males were doing almost all of the skiing. They slalomed, they went over the jumps, they bare-foot skied, and they did the tricks. The women were allowed out when they got to climb on to the men’s shoulders. I was pissed. Poor Michelle. I ranted and I raved. The icing on the cake was when just the women went out into the crowd to collect money. Previously it had been the whole team, men and women, but this time, it was only the women. I was fit to be tied. I asked one of the young women why the guys were doing most of the performing and I remember her saying, “Well, the guys are better at slalom and trick skiing.” Whether they were or not was not the point. This was a fun family night and apparently the corporate culture wasn’t into that.
I went home and wrote a letter to the president of the sponsoring company. I explained how they had usurped a one time fun and non-sexist event and corrupted it. I also explained that I didn’t appreciate them undoing all of my attempts to present my daughters with non-biased role models. And I made them an offer. If they cleaned up the show the next summer and returned it to its former equally shared format, I would be fine. If they didn’t, I would go to the event and I would stand on one of the picnic tables and I would yell at the top of my radio broadcast-trained voice demanding to see a balanced display of skiing. Since it was a public park I figured that I had as much right to be there shouting as their fancy announcer did and I wouldn’t shut up until the show was over.
I later learned that using this “mildly crazy” strategy could be most effective. My neighbour Ken, who worked in a local maximum-security penitentiary, explained to me that the only way for a little guy like me to survive in prison would be to act crazy. Act crazy and unpredictable enough and the tough guys will leave you alone. This of course was long before 9/11 and airport security and tasers and terrorists lurking everywhere.
The following summer we were back at the cottage and decided to go to the show. Another one of the great parenting techniques that Michelle had taught me was from Barbara Coloroso and it went something like this; “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’re going to do.” In other words, if your kid is acting up in the grocery store and you threaten to leave the next time they act up, then you’d better do what you said you were going to do. Kids are smart and they learn to recognize hollow threats. My threat to the sponsoring company was pretty out there. But I was going to do it. In fact I was probably looking forward to it a bit because lots of the cottagers were fairly well-heeled and I could see them being mortified by the lunatic on the picnic table screaming at the top of his lungs for more women on water skis. It wasn’t even in the typical male leering at cheerleaders sort of way. It was so that if my daughters ever decided they wanted to be championship water skiers, there would no bias in their minds that water skiing is what the boys did.
And guess what? Apparently speaking up worked! At the ski show the following year, the women slalomed, and the women jumped, and the women trick skied. The men did too, but both genders were equally represented. And to my absolute delight, at the end of the show, the guys collected the money. Just the guys. It was beyond my wildest dreams in terms of an outcome.
As we were leaving I looked down to the dock area and I saw a number of parents hugging and congratulating their daughters and the daughters seemed pretty pumped. As they should have. They were outstanding. Never doubt that a small group can change the world indeed. Never doubt that one crazy guy writing a letter or standing on a picnic table can have a profound impact.
These sorts of events are empowering. They assure you that you are capable of great things. They allow you to believe that you can start and run a successful business. They tell you that you can move off the grid without having a clue about electricity. They tell you that you can install a wind turbine on a 100-foot tilt up tower when the closest you’ve come to working with concrete was scratching your name into a freshly poured sidewalk on your suburban street.
You win some, you lose some. I would say that with the state of the environment today I’ve lost more battles than I’ve won, but that doesn’t stop me from trying!