11 3 / 2014

Published Tuesday March 11, 2014

The Olympics have ended and with the world’s eyes no longer focused on the pomp, energy and emotion of the Games, the Paralympics notwithstanding, there is now greater attention on the news of the day, including the ongoing unrest in Ukraine.

Unrest is a rather bland word to use in capturing the collapse of a country’s political system, the threat of invasion, and the percolating risk of civil war between East and West Ukraine.

Perhaps turmoil, confusion, or even mayhem would be better to describe the dark clouds hovering over a country I have never visited but lay claim to thanks to my father.

These days, I have stopped feeling confused about the situation in Ukraine and moved onto profound sadness and wondering if this is the new normal for a country that only recently gained its independence 23 years ago in 1991.

Twenty-three years: if Ukraine was a person, they could vote, drink, be finished college or university, starting their first or second job, be married, perhaps have a family.  

It’s not really a lot of time for a country learning how to govern when its primary focus for some many years was hanging onto to its culture and identity in the face of the constant threat of Russsification.

Only recently I heard about a news reporter whose Ukrainian translator was utterly confused about the language he was hearing from the East Ukrainians. It finally dawned on him that it wasn’t even a regional dialect he was hearing but Russian with a few Ukrainian sounding words. It really does illustrate why so many, Russian leader Vladimir Putin included, do not think Ukraine is a country.

It speaks volumes when I think about my friends in Toronto who went to Ukrainian school every Saturday morning and who attended Ukrainian dance and music classes, all designed to maintain their connection to the art, culture and language of their parents’ homeland, even as they built new lives in Canada.

Even today, with the now daily coverage and analysis available online, theories abound with respect to Ukraine’s future and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s plans for the country as a whole, not just the East and Crimea.

That uncertainty colours every interaction. Though I have often spoken of political issues, usually American concerns, with my Ukrainian cousins, rarely have we looked at Ukraine. Last week, it was the key focus of our conversations.

I am heartened by the attention people are paying to the issue. Like other countries, such as Syria, Sudan, and Egypt under siege in the last decade, Ukraine is seeing death and destruction even as it faces the possibility of invasion from the East and annexation from the West. 

And I am struck by an image that keeps recurring in my news feeds of a Ukrainian priest, shield in one hand, crucifix in the other, while grey smoke and rubble form the contrast to his meticulously embroidered gold stole and black chasuble.

More than anything, it is the symbol of a new Ukraine, where all hands are needed on deck to rebel openly against the new political oppression represented by government forces, alternately corrupt or Russian.

11 3 / 2014

Published Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A couple of years ago, I saw a video that really impressed me. In it a nine-year-old youngster described his magic hockey helmet. When he put it on, its magical powers transformed him from a nine-year-old worthy of respect an adult somehow deserving verbal abuse offered by on-lookers in the stands.

I thought about that video this weekend. While Miller Donnelly was talking about parents who go hogwild at the rink, I thought his analogy worked equally well in describing car drivers too.

I know I am not the only one who thinks the quality of driving in this province has deteriorated. It’s a topic of conversation most days, but it really becomes a trending topic, to borrow a phrase from Twitter, when the weather gets bad.

My husband and I have taken to keeping a running tally of the more egregious examples of bad driving. In the 48 hours we have seen an illegal U-turn at 6 am at one of St. John’s most dangerous intersections and a fishtailing driver who decided the posted ramp speed was directed at other drivers, not himself. Let’s not even get started on how few drivers understand how a four-way stop works.

One of my most frequent irritants is the driver who blocks the box. That is, a driver proceeds into the intersection even though traffic is not moving beyond it. The light changes, and there they sit, blocking any traffic from moving anywhere.

Last summer I saw an especially blatant example where the driver clearly had nowhere to go but went anyway, tried to feign bewilderment at the horn honking directed at her, and then gave all and sundry the finger when she realized no escape was possible.

These are only a couple of the moving violations we frequently see on our roads, but there are almost as many, if not more, when it comes to parking lots. I remarked to a friend once when we tried to squeeze her mid-size car in a spot shrunk by two Ford F-150s on either side, that like stork parking, there should be truck parking, except at the far end of the lot, not at the front end.

I’ve met many car and truck owners, and they are all reasonable, nice, accommodating people. Yet it still doesn’t explain how often I see vehicles barreling though stale yellows and reds at intersections, how poorly parked they are in parking lots, and how frighteningly fast they continue to go when snow has freshly fallen.

I have concluded that it must be like the magic helmet syndrome, except when it comes to cars and trucks. Outside the vehicle, the driver seems to be an ordinary fellow, an average mom, a mild mannered senior, or an unassuming office worker. Once behind the wheel though, comes a transformation that would rival Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde for speed and devilment.

When I first learned to drive, my teacher was very clear each and every time we got behind the wheel: Drive with your head, not your heart. His point was that emotion has no place when you are in control of a vehicle averaging about 2600 pounds if it is a midsize car or 6000 pounds if it is a truck.

I wish more drivers would remember this. So many accidents and traffic delays are preventable. Reduce your speed when the weather is bad. Add ten or 15 minutes to your driving time. Follow the rules. Heck, know what the rules are. Above all, be courteous. Don’t be that driver we all talk about at the water cooler, on open line or Twitter.

28 1 / 2014

When I was a university student, tea was a staple, even more so than coffee. The coffee I knew then was barely drinkable, having sat on a burner quietly stewing away.

Tea you could make on the spot, by flinging a tea bag into a cup, then pouring boiling water over it. After quickly fishing out the tea bag, you milked and sugared to your taste.

It was a while before I cottoned on to tea’s other properties: those of making connections, of offering opportunities to reflect, of creating a safe space. I want to share with you three lessons I learned from drinking tea.

The first cup of tea was when I was 21. I had gone to Spain to spend time with my grandmother and to reconnect with friends and relatives. One day, a friend of my grandmother’s came for tea. Everyone had a nice time, and after she left, I learned this friend had suffered great losses in her life.

I was surprised because this person seemed very put together; my then-naïve self could not conceive of someone being able to maintain a life after what she had experienced. And yet, here she was, still putting one foot after another, living a new normal. It was my first encounter with seeing people’s capacity for resilience and survival.

The second cup of tea came almost a decade later. I had finished school by then, and had been working for a number of years. I had been asked to do a series on mental health, and I was interviewing people about their experiences with their illness.

One interview took place in an individual’s home. We had a great interview and I learned a lot. Just as I was winding up the interview, the subject asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. I didn’t really, as by then I had moved on to coffee, but as I had spent time in this person’s house, I accepted.

Tea was made and it was strong enough to support a spoon. Only canned milk was available, and though I had long given up sugar, I was liberal with the sugar cubes. I drank the tea as quickly as politeness would allow while we talked of the weather, upcoming holiday plans and other banal topics.

As I was leaving, my host confided that my staying for tea had arisen from selfish reasons. You see, for my host talking about the experiences of mental illness often raised emotions that could only be quelled by having a cup of tea and spending a few moments in idle chatter. Until then, I had not realized a cup of tea was not just a cup of tea, but an invitation, however oblique, to connect.

My third cup of tea came almost 15 years later. I had gone to Happy Valley-Goose Bay for a meeting. On a whim, I went to visit a couple of craft stores in my remaining few hours before departure. My taxi driver, on learning that it was my first trip to his town, pointed out various places of interest.

His final recommendation was to visit a café near one of my stops for tea and to try the best redberry muffins available in Labrador. Never one to pass up a good place to eat, I duly noted it and went on my way. 

As it happened, I was in luck and the café was open. I went in and sat down at a free table. Tea and redberry muffin ordered, I finally unpacked myself from my winter coat and took in my surroundings.

I was the only white woman in the café.

As I applied myself to milking and sugaring my tea, I let the moment wash over me. Here, with my redberry muffin in hand and my tea cooling in its cup, I was being given an opportunity to catch a small glimpse of what it feels like to be visibly different.

It didn’t feel good.

Not in a fearful way, nor in an angry way, but more of an uncomfortable, “I’m not sure I should be here” way. When I look back on that cup of tea, I see that it made me rethink what we mean by inclusion and diversity, in creating safe places, in stepping back, and in moving forward.  

There’s often more to a simple cup of tea than you realize.

14 1 / 2014

Published St. John’s Telegram, January 14, 2014

Rolling blackouts, unplanned outages, unexpected demand for energy, wicked cold snaps: all these and more have occupied our minds and our conversations since  New Year’s.

I could write a lot more words on these topics as there is still quite a bit left to say, but some very fine words have already been shared. No, today, I am going to talk about energy conservation.

I still remember the energy crisis of the 70s. I remember my parents’ admonitions to put on a sweater, to turn off lights when I left a room, to turn down the heat before I left the house, to close windows properly, and to keep doors closed to minimize drafts and keep heat in.

As an adult, with my own home, I still follow all those guidelines. As a renter, I became accustomed to not having heat on until the first of November, and as a rule, I turn off all the heaters in the beginning of May, unless spring comes earlier.

Because of work schedules and some odd hours, I have also gotten used to running a dishwasher late at night, and doing laundry in the very early morning.  I also own two beloved crockpots, and truth be told, while they are energy savers, I use them in the winter as stress reducers.

In the last five years, I have had occasion to replace my washer, dryer, and dishwasher after my previous ones, well used and appreciated for more than a decade, decided it was time to give up. After a great deal of research, I chose to buy new energy efficient models and when the fridge and stove decide to give up the ghost, I am going to buy new EE models as well.

I am telling you this not because I think I am a sterling example of conservation, but because there are in fact many, many people out there like me, doing all the right things to save energy, including regular maintenance and investment in our personal infrastructure, such as ensuring our windows are tight, our roofs don’t leak, and our weather stripping is still secure.

During the rolling blackouts, we were offered a number of suggestions. Seeking to do more than just the obvious, I went on line to see what else could be done. 

I found some new ones including this great one to reduce heat leaks. Have a few old rag rugs or towels lying around waiting for a decision to use, toss, or giveaway? Roll them up and put them along your window sills to keep out the drafts and keep in your heat.

But what really astounded me was what I learned on Ontario Hydro’s website. Along with the energy awareness and conservation tips with which we have grown so familiar, was also the advice to use certain appliances such as dishwashers or dryers at off peak times. Now we were told this to reduce the demand,  but in Ontario it also reduces your personal costs.

Ontario Hydro understands that people need incentives, and while education and commitment to the environment go far, so does a little sweetener like a cheaper rate.

Imagine if we could get a bill from NF Power or NL Hydro that showed us our power usage and the improvement we could see in our rates if we were offered differential charges for peak and off peak times?

But Ontario doesn’t stop there. There’s a link to a coupon page offering discounts to Ontario residents for things like bulbs, dimmer switches, hot water heater blankets, pipe wraps, weather stripping, programmable power bars, and so on. (As a matter of fact, coupons or no coupons, I got some great ideas here on things that will help me reduce my power bill even further.)

So my suggestions is this: along with a closer scrutiny of how we invest in, maintain, and distribute our power, let’s look at ways we can reward customers for their investment in and commitment to energy conservation.

31 12 / 2013

Published Dec. 31, 2013

The last day of the old year cozying up to the first day of the new year offers such potential, for both reflection and anticipation.

We attach significance to various dates in our lives – our birthday; our wedding day, if we have one; the birthdays of our children, if we have them; the first day of school; our last day of school; the first day of our new job (or the last day of our old one); and so on.

Whatever the reason, we celebrate anniversaries, we remember those we have lost, we recognize the changes that simply living life brings. These are touchstones to memories we have created and the people with whom they have been shared. We also attach meaning and value to them because they are visible signs of our own growth and development.

Yet, over the next month, we will be inundated with articles, features, magazine covers, and videos on how to change, improve, jumpstart, transform, revolutionize, modify everything that bothers us about ourselves and our lives.

There’s nothing wrong in making goals, or even in deciding to introduce healthier habits.  However, in the last few years, I have been bothered by the relentless and seemingly unstoppable onslaught of exhortations to lose weight, to adopt minimalist living, to reduce consumption, to shed toxic relationships, and on and on it goes.

There’s a certain irony in that. We start in September and October with regular reminders of Christmas shopping lists, meal planning for big celebrations, and renovating for the fresh holiday look, all of which is founded on a principle that the holidays are about excess and consumption. Come January, we switch to austerity mode, where seemingly everything needs to be reduced, renewed, and remade, including people.

Rather than celebrate what we can do right, the focus is always on what we are doing wrong.

I have written in the past about the need to see potential rather than correction in life. There’s also nothing wrong with setting goals and evaluating them; like a ship’s captain, deciding to modify your direction with adjustments to avoid danger or poor conditions that will interfere with you reaching your destination is always a wise consideration.

I think we need to change our perspective and stop seeing people as objects to be fixed or to be made over into some ideal that is not about who we are or what reflects our own values and beliefs.

If we began with the assumption that people are inherently good, rather than inherently flawed, how does our approach change? Using a solution-focused approach – what needs to change to make things better – rather than focusing constantly on the things that are considered wrong or poorly chosen allows people to move beyond the symptom and focus on where change can really make a difference.

For example, look at Meatless Mondays, a campaign developed by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2003 to support improved health through reduced consumption of meat.  The campaign doesn’t say meat is bad; it doesn’t say eat more vegetables, it doesn’t focus on weight or cholesterol or blood pressure.

Instead it focuses on making small changes (one meal or three meals one day a week) to make a difference in the long term rather than promoting a quick fix, radical approach that assumes something is wrong with the person to start with.

Another key difference is that the campaign designers also offered up multiple ways of achieving this goal, ways which have since been applied to other health behaviours, such as smoking, physical activity and other aspects of nutrition.

Using fear, self-doubt, and even smug satisfaction to promote change is not the way to go. I think John Bingham said it best when he commented on finishing a marathon after years of living a sedentary lifestyle: “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

This year, make a promise to yourself to celebrate the good things in you and your life, and if you need to make changes, find the courage within you to do the small things that will make a positive difference for you.

17 12 / 2013

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For Tuesday Dec. 17, 2013

Last week Canada Post announced it was going to stop home postal delivery and implement community mailboxes in urban centres.

That Canadians, homeowners and businesses alike, were caught off guard is an understatement. Coming one day after the Christmas recess of Parliament, Canada Post’s decision was met mostly with disbelief, anger, and dismay, but also in some quarters, with approval.

First off, let me say I have personal experience with three models of delivery: home, paid postal box in a rural area, and a free community mailbox in a rural area albeit part of a new housing development zone.

Of the three, my preference is for home delivery, followed by the paid postal box. It is safe to say that my dislike of the community mailbox was largely seasonal as being exposed to the elements while collecting mail was less than desirable. I also missed the contact with the letter carriers and the postal clerks, so when I moved back into St. John’s, home delivery was a huge plus.

I am not alone in my beliefs. But let’s deal with the approval of the decision first. Quite a number of people who use community mailboxes support the move to cease home delivery, largely on the basis that they don‘t have it so why should some enjoy it?

Others highlighted the benefits of a daily walk to the community mailbox citing the chance to get outside, enjoy some fresh air, and get some exercise.

Valid points for sure, but let’s take a closer look at some of the assumptions. I never see equality as a means to treat people equally badly, but rather as the way we should treat all equally well.

Just because home delivery was phased out in certain areas doesn’t mean that was a good decision to start with. At least in rural areas, you get the human contact with the post office staff, and the boxes are located indoors, away from the elements.

Secondly, the exercise/fresh air benefit is important, but doesn’t help if you are disabled or a frail senior. While Canadians are living longer, and many are healthier, that’s not always the case. The longer you live, the more likely you are to develop health issues that may make it difficult to go for that walk, especially when sidewalks are icier and the risk of a fall or fracture – something that could dramatically affect your life – is greater. As a colleague in the disability movement notes, people are just one accident /illness away from being disabled. But even now, there are many seniors and people with disabilities who will be ill-served by this decision. Not all live in apartment buildings, whose postal services, while not delivered apartment door to apartment door, are serviced with post boxes inside and well secured from elements and miscreants.

Of course people may say, why not drive? For all its pains, my super mailbox was located in an area close to no one with a pullover lane where people could park and hop out. But it was on a hill and it would be challenging, especially in winter to manage with a wheelchair, crutches, cane, or walker.

After last week’s announcement, I started looking at where the mailboxes are already in our area. I found a great example of a poorly designed one on a four-lane roadway, with no pullover area, no shelter, and no visible garbage/recycling unit.

At least one can argue that the community boxes in new suburban developments are built with some reasonable discretion in placement and shelter. However, I can tell you that our super mailbox was not equipped to deal with people’s disposal of junk/marketing/promotional flyer mail. Frequently the small garbage unit was full, and our famous winds often dispersed paper to the four corners of the earth …. I mean sub-division.

A burning question for many is this: where will the community mailboxes be located in urban centres? In the older areas of town, there is less real estate available to appropriate for use with a sheltered community mailbox. Further, how will we deal with the diminished social contact resulting from the absence of letter carriers? Will plans for community mailboxes take into account universal design and meet the needs of people with disabilities or other mobility/access challenges?

Small businesses and Canadians in general still use the post office to maintain contact with clients and friends. While email is a tremendous tool for efficiency, not everything can be done reliably and securely with electronic services.

I have no disagreement that costs are high, both for delivery and for the use of the service. But there are creative approaches that can be used: for example, why not go to delivery twice a week? Cities use zones to schedule weekly pick up of garbage and recycling to manage costs and work loads. Why not limit the salary costs of senior and upper management? Switzerland has developed a model of calculation that allows for recognition of the jobs undertake by organizational leaders but not so much that it demeans the other employees’ value as well as risk the company’s financial position.

Then there are the politicians. I wonder how many of them will be getting the proverbial message as this decision runs its course.

04 12 / 2013

 Published St. John’s Telegram, Dec. 3, 2014

One of the best things about being a parent is hearing and seeing the new ways of looking at the world that children bring to your life.

An idle question about a play some friends did years ago while in high school led to a query about the five stages of grief (or death and dying) that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross articulated, and then we were off and running in a discussion on some of the ways those five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — can be used to explain much of our response to what happens in our world.

(Yes, we have some deep conversations in my family.)

This past Sunday was the first of Advent, the four weeks leading to Christmas, that Christians mark each year.

That it was also December 1 was not lost on me. I couldn’t have forgotten if I tried: the papers, the radio, the television, and the Internet are full of countdowns, all of them seemingly designed to induce panic about readiness.

I’m not comparing death and dying to the whirl of emotions of pre-holiday planning, but it did occur to me that Kubler-Ross had created a handy rubric that could be applied to the holiday season, and over the past two decades, I have seen quite a few people move through those steps.

Denial – Social media is full of commentary from people who are putting their fingers in their ears and going la-la-la as others chat cheerfully about the holiday plans. To be honest, when I was in my 20s, I really thought people who didn’t do anything for Christmas until the last minute was a myth until one year, I had to wait for a pick up on Christmas Eve and our meeting spot was the mall. I was bemused by the hordes out shopping, not for a deal, but for the adrenalin rush of finishing their list. But as one friend is fond of saying, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Anger – Last week it was American Thanksgiving, an event that ranks higher than Christmas in that country’s holiday schedule, but it too has its share of drama and angst, of sturm und drang. Whether it is debating where to eat dinner, what to have for dinner, whose turn it is to take Grandma to church, or getting wound up when someone steals your parking spot or takes the last must-have toy off the shelf, there’s a fair bit of anger and its companion, resentment accompanying the holidays. Sadly, based on what I have read and seen, quite a few people stay in this stage.

Bargaining – I think we’ve all been there and done that. I’ve known many parents who have moved heaven and earth to get something dearly prized by their child. The deals which happen are amazing and would probably put Wall Street bigwigs to shame for their sheer elegance. One year I had a flood that took out my basement. Contractors were few and far between and I found myself at the beginning of November looking at concrete and studs and wondering if I would actually have walls and a floor before Christmas. Many were the bargains made so that by December 20, the celebrating could begin in earnest.

Depression – Remember what I said about the drama that accompanies holidays? You would never say it to look at the pictures on the blogs, the advertisements, and the catalogues. The clash between the representation of reality and the lived experience is the source of most holiday depression, say those who work in the mental health field. The expectations that are created are often unrealistic, and frequently unachievable. For those who have experienced losses, Christmas and other big religious celebrations such as Hanukkah for example, tend to remind people of what is missing instead of focusing on what still remains.

Acceptance – While Kubler-Ross argued that the stages were not sequential steps, and that people moved through them in various ways, it seems we almost always come to acceptance at the end regardless of how we have walked those steps. That year I had the flood? I decided I didn’t need to do half of what I had planned; I ditched some things and made up new ones to deal with my new reality. When you take charge of your priorities, rather than them take charge of you, life is easier and more peaceful in my experience.

Four of the five stages may be looming on the horizon, but it doesn’t have to be. In our household, we look forward to 12 days of joy and keeping it really, really simple. May the holidays be what you want them to be.

28 11 / 2013

Published Tuesday Dec. 20, 2011

Not long ago, I remarked to a friend that in a place like Newfoundland and Labrador, you can always find a way to be connected to one another. If it’s not through family, it’s through work; if it isn’t work, it’s through school, and so it goes. Here in this place we call home, it’s not six degrees that separate us, but perhaps only two or three.

One of the benefits of being connected on so many different levels is seeing life through different experiences and cultures. The positive emphasis on diversity is evident from the kinds of things my child talks about on arrival home from school and which are quite different from what I learned and saw when I was in school years ago.

While we were part of a thriving and active immigrant community, today there is just so much more, from food to music, from celebrations to rituals. And yes, religious beliefs and practices are more obviously part of the mix.

Growing up Catholic meant seeing things from a very different perspective than if one were Jewish or Muslim or Hindu. Thankfully my child is growing up learning in detail about other cultures, customs, and practices, in part because our own community of friends and colleagues is more diverse as the circle grows wider, but also because we have created more spaces in our community in which to share and explore what this means.

A few years ago a kind friend gave me a lovely book for my son about Hanukkah.  Children get small gifts throughout the eight days, leading to the mistaken assumption that Hanukkah is a kind of Jewish version of Christmas.  In reading it with my son, I was inspired by the meaning and symbolism of the Menorah and the eight nights of celebration and contemplation. 

Thus began a new tradition between my friend and me: each night of Hanukkah, I send her a wish (rather than a gift – we both have too much stuff already!) to mark her religious celebration and to celebrate our friendship. This time of year, when the days are shorter and the light is in scant supply, we need all the brightness we can get and honouring both works very well.

While I think of particular wishes for my friend, I think many of them are ones we would all like, so here you go:

  • May you have strength and support to carry you when you need it.
  • May you have a light heart and lots of laughter to lighten your load and brighten your day.
  • May you have an abundance of what matters, especially a generosity of spirit.
  • May you have peace and serenity. We should all be the oil that calms rough water.
  • May you have perseverance because we need to see clearly and with determination.
  • May you have respect as it lights the way to understanding.
  • May you have the gift of faith: when we have faith, what we imagine becomes possible.
  • May you always have hope. Hope is the tiny candle flame pushing back at the dark; it’s the arms outstretched giving a hug to thaw a heart numbed by pain; it’s the kind word that says we will face fear together. To live with hope is to live knowing you are not alone.

Best wishes to all in this season of joy and all the best for the new year ahead.

19 11 / 2013

Published Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013

I had to pinch myself on the weekend to make sure I was awake. I had come across an article and I was sure I was like Rip Van Winkle in reverse, having gone back not 20 years but at least 40 in time.

The reason for my disbelief was an article that examined critiques of the wardrobe belonging to the prospective nominee to head the US Federal reserve, Janet Yellen.

Goodness me, it seems in favouring black suits, Yellen has committed the unpardonable sin of dressing in a boring and dowdy manner.

Never mind that lots of men have a uniform approach to dressing and are praised for it. Lucia Graves of the National Journal cites Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs as powerful and famous men who are or were noted for, respectively, their blue-grey suits, Facebook T-shirt and black turtleneck/jeans combo. 

Their lack of variety in fashion is a signal of how smart, busy and important they are. They don’t waste time on picayune details like what to wear, or wondering if the flowered tie seem to forward for a business lunch with a new investor.

Such inanities don’t concern them, oh no, and isn’t it amazing how much they get done when they routinize the small decisions so they can focus on the big ones?

And yet, Yellen follows a long line of women, including Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in recent years, who have been praised or vilified for their fashion sense. The fact that they may be the biggest financial, political, scientific, or socially advanced brains in the world matters not a whit.

As Graves notes, Yellen is about to become the keeper of the keys to the world’s most influential piggy bank. The fact that she wore the same dress, or something quite similar on several occasions, is not likely to reflect on the U.S. economy no more than Obama wearing the same colour suit every days is going to change the path of U.S. foreign policy.

The fact is you can’t win for trying if you are women of power working in what was long assumed to be exclusively male spheres: politics, economics, justice and diplomacy.  

I still remember the comments made after a federal status of women minister was participating in a local event. “Goodness,” said one observer, “you’d think she’d choose something nicer.” Not five minutes later I overheard another tutting: “Look at her all dressed up like a stick of gum! She thinks she’s some fancy.”

The fact is if you dress appropriately (and I use that term advisedly as the goalposts on that adverb move every day), you care too much. Wear clothes that aren’t the latest fashion, or don’t seem to have a spark, then you clearly don’t care enough.

As it is, after much pondering, given that we can always deflect attention from the meaningful aspects of a woman’s work by commenting on what she is wearing, what’s really happening is a challenge to Yellen’s place not only in a man’s space but to her seeming appropriation of what has been a male tradition: the uniform suit.

Taking apart the resistance to Yellen’s approach offers another look at the interpersonal dynamic we see between men and women in the workplace. Years ago John T. Molloy, the fashion consultant who recommended women wear business suits including ties, led the way to the concept of power dressing.

While Jobs and Zuckerberg may have been mocked on occasion for their casual and consistent mode of dress, it wasn’t ever done in a way that called into question their decision-making ability. 

For Yellen, I think the critiques of her style and that of other women, do challenge their authority and their ability to wield power.

In the 21st century, it’s well past time we did away with such ridiculous notions. How women, or men, lead should not be dependent on their fashion sense.

— Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant. Her power suit is limegreen. socialnotes at gmail.com

Photo credit: Martha Muzychka

05 11 / 2013

Published St. John’s Telegram Tuesday November 5, 2013

Children can be refreshingly honest. They haven’t yet acquired the veneer of politeness that comes from parents insisting on manners, consideration, and decorum.

Don’t get me wrong; I think manners are essential. Politeness is the oil that ensures our social interactions run smoothly: listen while others are speaking, don’t interrupt, give others a chance to share, and if you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.

And yet, over the past week, every time I have seen Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Mayor Rob Ford in the news, I have been seized with a powerful urge to shriek like a child: “Liar, liar, pant’s on fire!”

It boggles the mind that the leader of our country and the leader of our largest city can stand up before the public, their constituents, and state baldly that they have not done wrong or they have been misunderstood, or that perhaps there were mistakes, but what’s most important is their commitment to the people.  

People do make mistakes; after all, we are human. Sometimes we take the wrong path; sometimes we do the wrong thing. There are consequences to every decision, and if we make the wrong one, we have to wear it and deal with the fall out.

Except in these instances, we have had several months of repeated denials that anything illegal or ethically suspect has occurred. The obdurate stance of these leaders has been shored up by a strategy built on denial, deflection, or dismissal. It didn’t happen, it’s someone else’s fault, or it’s irrelevant when we have so much more important things to do, like manage a country or run a city.

Mayor Ford has now been exposed for what he is really: a leader without a moral compass, who believes that even if he has done wrong, he is still the right man to navigate the municipal priorities.

Nor can Stephen Harper hope that Ford’s troubles will cover up the Senate shenanigans that illustrate much of what is wrong with his leadership. Much like a fine veneer covering up inferior or poor quality wood, the Prime Minister’s facade of moral uprightness has hidden a foundation of self interest built on a very narrow political point of view.

I have been reminded again and again of Han Christian Andersen’s story about the emperor whose vanity and short sightedness led him to walk through his city naked in the belief that he was clothed in fine robes until a child stated the obvious.

That one line “the Emperor has no clothes” clearly embodies the Quaker value of speaking truth to power. Today, the principle has been adopted and integrated in most ethical codes as the duty to speak when illegal or unethical behaviours are contemplated or implemented.

In fact, those voices are now getting louder. Last week, all four papers in Toronto called on Ford to resign. The weekend news feed was littered with commentaries decrying Harper’s behaviour, some even going so far to label him a liar when the inconsistencies contained in his statements were compared and found to represent competing versions of reality.

Sadly, the current missteps and misdeeds of Harper and Ford are not isolated examples in our political landscape. A closer examination of the issues shows the cause to be primarily one of entitlement, that they are somehow, by virtue of their position, to be exempt from the rules.

Roman emperor and soldier Marcus Aurelius said “a man should be upright, not be kept upright.” Perhaps it is time we cleared out the rotten foundations propping up these guys and begin building anew using the precepts our communities value instead: fairness, transparency, accountability, respect, and honour.