Mean Behind The Screen

I was an amateur ballerina for eight years. I did not have a bright future as a dancer, but I did know the rules of the classroom. At the beginnings and ends of lessons, we had to acknowledge our teacher with a curtsy. Why an open-legged squat is a sign of respect remains a mystery to me. The rule, however, makes sense: in every interaction, we must begin and end with respect.

Outside of the mirrored walls of the ballet class, we see a handful of ways we show courtesy for one another in our communication even before we start: handshakes at meetings, warm greetings to start conversations, using formal prefixes for people we are just meeting. These symbols of courtesy have evolved alongside our communication and are practically intrinsic in any exchange- unless we are speaking through screens.

Chatting changed with the advent of e-mail, followed quickly by messaging, texting, then posting. We are less formal, we are more expedient. “You” becomes “u”, we omit punctuation entirely, we abbreviate “in my opinion” to IMO. We want to hurry-up and say our piece. Our fast-tracked communication has lost more than just grammar, spelling and full words. Somewhere along the line, we dropped basic courtesy.

Courtesy, at its plainest, is defined as behaviour marked by respect for others. In our community, it is on regular display outside.  A grocery line is not complete without a routine battle of the “sorries” between kind customers (“Were you here? I’m sorry, you go ahead” “No I’m sorry, you first, please”). Even a brief conversation downtown starts with a quick inquiry about our health (“How’re ya now?”) These exchanges, like a curtsey or a handshake, show our general respect for each other that transcends whatever the eventual conversation subject may be.

When we move behind our screens, our small-town familiarity and mutual respect is lost. Instead of assuming the best of people, we can assume the worst. Instead of looking out for one another, we can fall into the trap of throwing each other under the bus. Whether it be a garbage debate, the firefighter debate, or even a Tim Hortons debate, online conversations about “hot topics” can divide even the tightest of little communities.

In recent community discussions on several social media pages, a “thread” (group of typed posts) begins with one neighbour’s take on a hot topic. People respond by posting their own hot takes on the topic: usually brief, rarely without typos. In too many cases, the conversation devolves into mockery, name-calling, blocking and sometimes even aggression. On both sides of the battle: upstanding and kind members of our community.

How can we be so kind on the streets but so mean behind a screen?

On the streets in Deep River, we are not anonymous: we are recognizable, we are public. When we are behind a screen, it gives us the illusion of anonymity and privacy. We can say things we otherwise would not say. We behave as though our online personalities exist in a bubble. We have forgotten that we are still accountable for the things we say from the privacy of our smartphones. We ignore that the people receiving our words are our neighbours, colleagues and friends.

The benefits of aggressive posting cannot outweigh its problems. It is foolish to think that a single post or reply to a post will drastically change a complex issue on its own. It is very unlikely that a post can even change one person’s mind. However, an aggressive threat or mean-spirited joke can certainly have a detrimental effect on the typist’s own reputation, on the recipient’s sense of well-being, and on the general feeling of inclusivity and respect in a community.

In a community where we thrive on our mutual support, our reputations for kindness, and our heightened respect for one another, we must keep courtesy at the forefront of every interaction we have. The upside to the internet is that we have a moment at the end of a typed rant to reflect before we click “post” or “send”. We can choose to edit and amend to ensure we have shown respect to one another throughout the post. Online communication may not have a shortcut to show respect, it does not mean that we should forget about courtesy altogether.

In Deep River, our community members are too nice on the streets to be mean behind the screen. We need to hold our online communication to the same kindness standards we have in public exchanges.  Whether it be a ballet class, a Town Hall meeting, or an online exchange, we must begin and end with courtesy.

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A Costly Cup of Tim’$

Early in the morning this summer, I enjoyed a sweet workday start: sitting in my office chair, drinking what’s left of my Tim Horton’s coffee, and browsing Deep River Discussions. One post warmed my heart: “Huge shout out to Cody (not sure of his last name) from Deep River Tim Hortons”, it read, “…some of the friendliest service I’ve ever had.” The post blew-up with Likes, Comments and Shares: locals agreed.

I looked down at my coffee and remembered the smiling face and cheery greeting of the young man that served me. I DID enjoy my experience there. I SHOULD go back tomorrow. No sooner did the thought cross my mind that I realized that Cody from Deep River probably makes Tim Hortons an extra chunk of change, and that my Large Regular would not profit Cody at all.

Apart from our drive-thru run-ins, I have never spoken with Cody. I am willing to bet, however, that he makes little more than minimum wage. Having worked at that same Tim Hortons years ago, I have a small idea of what his workday looks like. He arrives work-ready in his work-mandated uniform at least 15 minutes before the start of his shift. He puts his phone away.

Cody’s work day is packed: he has regular chores that need to be finished before shift’s end, he has additional chores to do if he finishes the mandatory chores (if you can lean, you can clean), he focuses on each person’s experience while simultaneously meeting the corporate time requirements for maximum customer flow, and yet he still probably gets publicly criticized by one customer or co-worker once or twice in the day. His day is strictly regulated with conversation time being limited to 1-2 breaks of 15 minutes, during which he can eat by himself in a small back room. Cody earns every penny he is paid. The smile and cheery attitude is a bonus he throws-in for us.

Minimum wage jobs are extremely difficult. Personally, I have worked in over 20 different workplaces through high school, university, and law school. With the possible exception of articling, I have never found work as draining as when I worked minimum wage jobs – particularly, in the fast service industry.  The pace, the lack of recognition, the monotony of forced routine, the high number of tasks and lack of any real control in your day requires massive amounts of energy and leaves the worker with little to nothing left at the end of a shift. This is not to say that people who work at Tim Hortons do not like their jobs, nor that minimum wage jobs are devoid of reward. This is to say that they are damn tough.

As a capitalist society, we endorse reaping what you sow. The harder you work, the more you stand to profit, right? Not so for minimum-wage employees: they hit the glass ceiling hard, regardless of profit creation or capability. Cody is rocking it from the drive-thru window making even us locals want to buy into the Tim Hortons’ overpriced drip coffee enterprise. Cody realizes almost none of the additional profit he makes for his store. When the minimum wage was $11.25, the average Tim Horton’s employee earned $11.50. That average accounts for seniority! What about Cody’s boss? The Executive Chair of Tim Hortons, Paul D. House (even with credit for working double-double hours), makes approximately $945/hour. Is Paul D. House working 80 times harder than Cody per hour? No way, Housée.

Tim Hortons Corporation is structured so that, after franchise royalties, mandatory costs, mandatory expenses, etc., even our local franchisee will only see a small fraction of any profit Cody makes. Our Deep River Tim’s money is not local. It gets funnelled straight to the Big “Paul D. House” on the top: the CEO and all the coffee bean counters.

The Liberals have made a small change to the minimum wage that impacts us in a big way in Deep River. The minimum wage increased to $14 this January (annual salary of $29K before taxes). Prior to this, those making minimum wage lived on a wage sitting directly atop the poverty line at $22K (below the poverty line if they had even one kid). Since most minimum wage workers live locally and spend most of their time in the area, nearly 100% of their paycheques are funnelled back into Deep River: into town-run community services, local establishments, landlords and taxes. $14 per hour does not land anyone into the lap of luxury, however, it may mean that someone working at Tim Hortons can live (frugally) on one job alone. Minimum wage hike: good news for Cody, good news for Deep River.

Local franchises and businesses, however, may not see the minimum wage increase as all sunshine and ice caps. Minimum wages hit franchisees and small business owners hard: they expose the thin profit margin that differentiates local business persons from Paul D. Houses. The natural inclination is to look at minimum wage workers and blame them for the squeeze. This anger is righteous – but misdirected.

The $14 that goes into a skilled, minimum wage worker is money well-spent: it pays for a loyal employee, working hard under direct supervision, promoting the business locally, being taxed locally and spending their money locally. The tight squeeze in profitability is likely not from Cody’s extra $3 an hour, but rather in the exceptionally high costs of globalization, franchises, and large corporate retailers who inflate the bottom line expenses of Maw and Paw shops.

With the minimum wage hike, Deep River Discussions has seen some angry posts. The brewing rage focuses on how over-paid minimum wage workers are. Some rants directly blame those minimum wage workers for their own unemployment. The out-of-town corporations who regularly price us out of small businesses and franchises somehow avoid all blame.  This logic is backward. The local minimum wage workers are not driving the franchise royalties and mandatory costs. The local minimum wage workers are not relying on out-of-country production and services to drive down their costs and price local vendors out of business. The local minimum wage workers want local businesses to succeed and have a vested interest in their success.

As a small community that relies on local business, on local support, and on a thriving population, we must be thankful. An increase allows our neighbours, who work for the least amount of money, to receive a fraction closer to what they have earned through hard and dedicated work. We need to focus our frustration not on the Codys, but on the Paul D. Houses, Galen G. Westons, and Stephen G. Wetmores. The middle-initial corporate barons not only hold our extra spending money on their Tim’s Card, PC Card, or Canadian Tire Cards, but also the key to the profit handcuffs on our local businesses, and the rightful earned wages of our community members.

White Screen Christmas

What was the best part of your day? My little four-year-old friend considered the question. On a busy holiday Sunday, she had a lot to choose from: sitting on Santa’s lap, carolling in the pub, gymnastics, a birthday dinner… The winner? Playing on mom’s iPad.

Internet, social media, and our screen devices have revolutionized the way we live. From everyday bedtime reading to planning your latest gala, technology is the backseat driver on our fun. During the Christmas holidays, our tech makeover is more galling than ever. Screens run rampant live-broadcasting our social events, taking pictures of our holiday food, filling the rare silent moment, and offering us guilt-free last-minute Christmas shopping.

This is not a Holly, Jolly reality. It is more of a Nightmare Before Christmas. Our obsession with screens creates some real privacy concerns, makes us anti-social, and can be downright depressing. My iPad-loving four-year old friend is lucky to have a very attentive mom who actively limits her access to and use of screens. However, after 18, we are on our own to monitor against our own screen-obsession.

Let’s talk privacy. Our smart devices smack of Orwellian predictions about our future. We record, track and disseminate our private lives through social media. One SnapChat program provides a live-feed GPS to track your every movement. On Facebook, I can see the events my Facebook “friends” have attended, what they were wearing, and who they were with. The fitness apps track when we sleep, heart rates, what we ate, even our measurements. Right now, these private broadcasts may not seem like a big deal. However, our informational world is still evolving.

How would your Health Insurer feel about the MacDonald’s diet you have been faithfully reporting to your Fitness app? Would your stalker ex-boyfriend like to see your live GPS feed? Would you like your boss to have access to your twitter opinion on a controversial topics? Everything you put on your device is available to any user with the right technology. We need to stop confiding in our phones like they were our best friends and start treating them like the frenemies they are.

Speaking of friends, our smart devices have become the stage-five clinger in our lives. Screens drive us away from the important people in our lives, constantly demand our attention, and then pit us against the people in our real-life social networks. A recent study reveals that one third of people admit they communicate less with their parents, partners, children and friends because they can just “follow” them on social media. Our smart devices also create divides between people: 42% of people felt jealous toward their friends who received more “likes” than they did. The nerve!

Spending our lives on our devices watching the best-of reel of our acquaintances’ lives on social media can be downright depressing. We spend less time outside, we have less human interaction, and we can easily feel like we are trying to keep up with an unlimited number of The Jones’. The sad reality of screens and social media calls into question why we use them at all.

Unless you hide away in a camp out in the Wylie Road backwoods, we are all stuck with screens. We use them out of necessity. Screens and social media do, of course, have a helpful, informative, and entertaining side. They are a guilty pleasure we all revel in. All of us have undoubtedly heard of a friend who publicly boycotts the modern world of screen technology and social media. We have all equally bit our tongues when the same friend returns back into the screen world quietly a few weeks later.

The key to harnessing the best parts of screens and social media has got to be informed moderation, not abstinence. We cannot ignore the positive or negative reality of social media. Hiding from technology leaves the non-user ill-equipped to participate in our modern world. Our best defence against the phone is informing ourselves of the dangers and adjusting our use accordingly.

I simply cannot end a pre-Christmas Cup of Jo as a Grinch. To turn things around, I have written a little parody of what I believe to be the most entertaining part of social media: Deep River Yardsale Facebook Group. At the request of Katie Roblin, please enjoy this little Carol, set to the tune of “My Favourite Things”. Merry Christmas, Deep River!

DEEP RIVER YARD SALE THINGS

One grass stained prom dress,

‘80s cassette player,

Used size-C brazier,

Four blades for your razor,

Kombucha Scoby,

Sad engagement ring:

These are some Deep Ri-ver Yard-sa-le Things!

***

Lulu Lemon Pants,

One actual rooster,

Old beat-up couches,

Broken baby booster.

What in the heck is a “Fingerling”?

These are some Deep Ri-ver Yard-sa-le Things!

****

Stolen road bike!

Gross homemade soup!

Shirt with a breast hole!
Once your friends buy your impractical things,

You, too, can mark them…

AS SOLD!

The Grape Debate

Quick! Name three luxury items you would love to be able to afford.

  1. Infinity pool.
  2. Yacht with a slide.
  3. ValuMart grapes.

Since A&P closed its refrigerator doors over 20 years ago, ValuMart found itself with a grocery store monopoly in a small town, with plenty of fairly affluent folks. Combined with high shipping fees to traverse fresh produce down the 17, taxes, and inflation, the cost of food meant that sub-$100 grocery trips were a thing of the past.

Staring-down the hefty ValuMart receipt, you notice something startling. The first half of your grocery trip, through the produce and meats section, is much more expensive than the later jaunt through pre-packaged, processed foods aisles.

The grocery price disparity weaves its way into the food-decision-making process. “My kids like the $2.39 canned vegetable soup more than the vegetable soup it cost me $17.56 and a Sunday morning to make.” The temptation to eat canned is financial. Eating “clean” is expensive.

My friend experienced the grocery dilemma first-hand. Since she started eating clean (basically, eating real food with no additives, sugars, fillers), her grocery bill has doubled. “No wonder people don’t eat this way!” she complained. She felt her food bill was jacked-up because it was fresh.

Fairly or unfairly, this is the repeating chorus I’ve heard since I moved back to Deep River: ValuMart produce is too costly to make eating fresh food a financially smart decision.

I disagreed with my friend. All food is expensive. Real food at any grocery store still gives way more bang for your buck than the cheaper aisles. Here is how I proved it to her:

Fresh Soup and Chicken Breasts (Meal A)

vs.

Canned Soup and Kraft Grilled Cheese (Meal B)

The cost of our real food, Meal A, is approximately $30. Feeding the canned soup, Kraft Singles on white bread, Meal B, to a family of four costs less than $8, all-in. However, Meal A’s price per nutritional unit is actually cheaper.

The real food in Meal A packs important vitamins, nutrients, and protein into everyone eating it. 100% of the foods will be helpful to the body. Bodies will not only “feel full”, but will actually be satiated. Later that day, when bodies want to exercise/think/sleep/function, real food can only help.

Meal B’s nutritional value is miniscule. In the canned vegetable soup, we see that only a fraction of the ‘meal’ has real ingredients. The rest: salt, refined sugar, water, and chemicals I struggle pronouncing. The white bread and butter leaves little for a body to capitalize on. Do not get me started on the Kraft Singles. After Meal B, you’ll be hungry again in an hour, so you need to price-in an inevitable post-dinner snack.

Eating is fuel. Cheap processed food is like burning chemicals and garbage in your woodstove. Sure, this fire is quick and easy, and will flame bright and hot at the start. However, it will burn out quickly, you will be constantly replenishing it, the chemicals from the garbage can impact your health, and you’ll end-up reeking of its by-products. We are better-off to use quality wood to fuel a lasting, useful and pleasant fire.

Let’s turn to price per unit. If we say that 15% of canned Meal B ($8) is giving you nutrition vs. 100% of real Meal A ($30), then we can figure out what the food actually costs. To get the same 100% nutrition from the pre-packaged foods in Meal B, I would need to buy more of it, to the tune of $53 ($8 ÷ 15% … do I have that right, Mrs. Van Wagner?)

The worst part of pre-packaged food is life imposes additional extra costs to eating garbage. The remaining 85% of non-beneficial ingredients in canned Meal B will make a body lethargic, cause weight gain, and maybe even contribute to medical problems. We must add-on costs like gym memberships, Spanx, and sick/unpaid leave from work.

Adding-up costs: $53 in product for same nutrition + $100 gym membership + $15 Spanx, cheap food is the more expensive alternative.

I am not a mathematician. I suspect my numbers need tweaking. I’m also not an investigative journalist. I have no idea why groceries cost what they do, why Food Basics is cheap, or why I can’t afford to eat grapes most weeks at ValuMart. I suspect that the reasons are far more complex and boil down to logistics, franchise agreements, and the quality of the produce. In fact, this might be a great piece for the NRT to investigate…

I am a realist. Bailing on nutrition isn’t going to make your life less expensive, no matter what grocery store you shop from. Food is expensive. Good food is no exception. My friend will have to find an alternative to lighten the grocery load: potlucks, sending the kids to friend’s houses for dinner, waiting for the infamous $1.99 grape sale week at ValuMart.

Instead of crunching numbers, consider treating yourself to a little luxury once in a while. Dine on expensive ValuMart grapes! Go for broke: enjoy some fermented ones at the LCBO at the same time.

Who The Heck Is Larry Dumoulin?

Every country needs its whistleblowers. They are crucial to a healthy society. The employee who, in the public interest, has the independence of judgement and the personal courage to challenge malpractice or illegality is a kind of public hero. ― Fuad Alakbarov

Deep River is a different place than when I left it in 2002: Centennial Rock has a new landscape, Mackenzie is now a Community School, and everywhere I look I see a name I did not know before: Larry Dumoulin. In the North Renfrew Times, in Counsel Meetings, on Social Media, in the aisles of Giant Tiger, on the CBC: Larry Dumoulin’s name and his opinion call out for change to everyone who will listen.

I had no idea who Larry Dumoulin was. Through my extensive research (Google, my friends and family), I understand Larry has lived here for a long time and even worked for the Town as Treasurer when I was still in elementary school. Mr. Dumoulin has had his spoon in the pot for years. With the advent of Facebook “Discussion Groups”, Larry Dumoulin is a household name. Larry regularly disrupts the status quo of our small town and is not afraid to do it.

Living in a small town, we wrestle with social dynamics that spill into all aspects of our lives. A medical professional who does our physical in the morning might sit beside us at church that evening. The police officer who confiscated our underage booze backpacks on the way to Summerfest might be the parent who invited us over for our friend’s birthday party the week before.  A councillor that we face-off against about municipal decisions one night might also be the teammate who wins the face-off for our hockey game the following night. Awkward? Ya. Surprising? Nah.

Close social ties in an isolated town makes a community stronger. Your doctor can fill a prescription quickly, the police officer might give you a “you’re a good kid” break, and our municipal officials consider the nuanced concerns of the townspeople. We all go-along-to-get-along in our non-social activities to allow for smooth and harmonious social lives.

The problem with going-along-to-get-along is that we maintain the status quo. Change does not happen. Systems that never worked are never fixed. Problems within an organization bloom into catastrophes. Small biases turn into systemic unfairness. Like the junk drawer in our kitchen, ignoring annoyances and problems can result in a heaping mess that nobody is willing to address.

Enter Larry.

I have never met the fellow. I understand that most of the bees in his bonnet are with the functioning of the Town. Whether it be an under-researched proposal to switch police forces, or the neglected decision of what to do about our fire services, Mr. Dumoulin is not content to go-along-to-get-along. Instead, Mr. Dumoulin asks hard questions. Mr. Dumoulin demands answers. Most importantly, Mr. Dumoulin incites the public to take an active concern in the town politics that affect us all.

We are not always happy with town decisions. Complaining to one another over brunch may feel great, but does little to change anything. Many of us cannot or choose not to publicly share our opinions on town issues because of our work, our social circles, or even our own ignorance on the topic. Having a town adjitator keeps everyone accountable, promotes change and certainly adds to our conversations around the water cooler.

For anyone who has yet to read one of Mr. Dumoulin’s indictments on the town issues, I urge you to get out your dictionary and have a stab at one. They are well-written, sophisticated submissions that easily put the President of the United States’ correspondence to shame. When you reach the end of the submissions, you may not agree with them. You will admit, however, that they are persuasive.

Mr. Dumoulin’s regular advocacy can seem intrusive, overbearing and, in short, annoying to some. Mr. Dumoulin’s positions on issues can be polarizing. Mr. Dumoulin’s methods can be controversial. Many do not agree with the arguments he makes or the creative ways he chooses to make them. Mr. Dumoulin’s voice on Facebook can be loud – so loud, in fact, that a new Facebook Group was required to discuss the issues he has taken-up.

Being a lawyer by trade, I recognize that speaking-up for change can be unnerving, isolating, and even punishing. Nevertheless, the most important discussions are often the most challenging. We are all very lucky to have someone in the town who is willing to have those discussions – whether we agree with him or not.

I began my year here wondering “who the heck is Larry Dumoulin?” I am left now wondering where our town would be without our favourite pot-stirrer. I propose a toast! Here’s to Larry Dumoulin: a man we can all count on to speak-up on our issues, even if we disagree with him, and even we have never actually spoken with him before.