Are you ept?


I woke up this morning wishing that I were ept.

I know quite a few people who are ept. A friend and colleague who, although he was a successful academic, makes beautiful musical instruments and bakes cakes. A neighbour who professionally is a geologist is also a master gardener and garden designer. And can put in watering systems. An administrator in the security business who also builds barns, installs kitchens, creates entire decorative wheelbarrows out of wood. A son who creates a virtual reality business but also built, along with his father in law, a pole house.

These people all do demanding intellectual and creative jobs but also are able to do a myriad of practical tasks.

And then there are others, like yours truly, who are inept. In grade eight, I passed the shops course because when I was using the lathe, I pressed too hard on the chisel, the chisel slipped and my thumb got lathed. I’ve still got the scar. For the rest of the year the teacher kept me away from moving objects and sighed with relief when the course was over and I hadn’t done any more damage to myself. He wasn’t going to risk having me retake the course by giving me a failing grade.

As I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, I asked myself what is it that makes someone ept?

It’s not just being good or really good at what one does for a living. I mean, if you worked in a bakery, your boss could say he’s inept because your Danish’s were lopsided, your croissants didn’t crunch. But to me, being ept means the ability to do a wide range of tasks outside of how one earns a living. Our family doctor in Gimli used to win prizes for his embroidery. When someone snickered, he said you’ll be glad of my embroidery skills when I have to sew you up. So, I’m not sure if that’s far enough outside his profession to make him ept.

I wonder if eptness is something we are born with or whether it is the result of experience, the old nature or nurture conundrum. Is it the result of good eye/hand coordination? Is it a matter of self-confidence? Are epters the yes, I can people and the inepters are the no I can’t people?

Does eptness come from being around family members who have a wide range of skills and problem solving abilities? Does it come from a model that is available when we are young? I know how important modeling is. Before you can do something, you have to imagine doing it. That isn’t as simple as it sounds. Family, neighbours, community, church, school—all sorts of individuals and organizations, both large and small, give out the message, you can’t do that. Or, you shouldn’t do that. Or, someone like you shouldn’t do that.

I give credit to Steina Kristofferson for modeling being a writer. She wrote a novel called Tanya. Someone I knew, a former teacher, wrote a book and it was published. A local person, an elementary school teacher, someone I knew could have a book published. She was ept. Knowing her, she did many other things as well, but with that publication, it was obvious that she did more than just teach school.

Maybe being ept is about not being limited by what one does for a living. Maybe that’s what hobbies are about, what recreational sports are about, what passionate participation is about. Maybe it is about self-image and not being locked into a self-image that others have created for you. I think for many people self-images are like the suits of armor that the knights of Yore used to wear. Except they can’t take them off. They clank through life with all their movements restricted by their armor, never taking the risks that eptness requires.



There are always turning points in political campaigns. They are usually unexpected and unplanned but, sometimes, it is because a political party makes incredible mistakes. Not big mistakes but a series of small mistakes that accumulate. The kind of mistakes that, while small, as they accumulate, reveal aspects of an individual politician or a party that makes people revolted or fearful. The law of unexpected consequences always lies coiled, ready to strike.

One of these was the niqab. It was a dead cat strategy. Get people talking about the niqab and how it was a threat to Canadians. The implications were that the women wearing it were likely to be also wearing a belt of explosives and were going to blow up people at a Blue Jay’s game or on the Toronto or Montreal subway. If that was the real fear, the ban should have been from the shoulders down. The women could vote with a head covering but the rest of them had to be naked or in a bikini. The whole argument was absurd.

In poker, if you think you’ve got a good hand, you ante up. You raise the stakes. That’s what Harper did. He thought he had a winning hand. His base didn’t like the niqab or the people who wore it so he raised the stakes. He made what was probably the most absurd statement of the election. If re-elected, he was going to ban the niqab for anyone working in government. The absurdity was that no one in government has worn one or currently wears one. He might as well said, I’m going to ban people chowing down on raw porcupines. Nobody is. That made it clear that this wasn’t about the niqab, it was an appeal to the prejudices of his so-called base.

Jason Kenny and Chris Alexander, with the blessing or, perhaps, the encouragement or instruction of the PMO, since nothing was done spontaneously and everything was controlled from the PMO’s office, announced that they would set up a snitch line for neighbours to report on neighbours for any barbaric cultural practices. They left barbaric cultural practices to our imaginations. BBQing children at backyard parties, perhaps?

There was going to be a whole new host of crimes, not defined in law, but defined by suspicion, prejudice, racism, envy (envy is a big motivator), greed, paranoia. The new Canadian emotion was going to be fear. Fear of your family, fear of your neighbours, fear of your community.

Pierre Trudeau said that the government had no place in the bedrooms of the community. The barbaric cultural practices snitch line (just think, when we were children, how one of our playmates could frighten us by saying he or she was going to tell mom or a teacher) wouldn’t just give the government and everyone else a place in our bedrooms but would ease us toward what currently exists in North Korea, what existed in Germany under the Nazi party, what existed in the USSR as everyone spied on everyone else.

Our universities have been at the forefront of multi-culturalism. That wasn’t the result of any policy. That was just the reality that people travel the world seeking particular types of education. When I was in graduate school in Iowa, a state that is rural, traditional, prosperous and conservative in terms of history and tradition, I was on the board of the foreign students’ association. There were students from around the world. I met Arabs, Israelis, Africans, Asians, Europeans, South Americans. I discovered that they were like me in what they wanted from life. They were different in traditions and habits. They ate foods I’d never heard of. As we studied amidst the corn fields of Iowa, we were all adapting: to each other, to Iowa, to America, to new knowledge and ideas. And some people fell in love. Back home, inter-racial was Ukrainian and Icelandic, or Icelandic and Aboriginal. That turned heads, caused gossip, and family conflict.

That multi-culturalism came about simply because people can love each other no matter what the colour of their skin or their ethnic or religious background. That reality gradually spread into Canadian society. Or, I should say, is gradually spreading into Canadian society. It is much more accepted in urban centres where people from many different backgrounds work together. It is not so well accepted in rural areas where people are used to being “us” and everyone else is “them.” Someone with a different background is frequently treated with suspicion and resentment. However, gradually, Canada has been becoming more tolerant but that tolerance, spreading out from urban centres also has elicited a back lash of resentment.

To their unending shame, Harper and his campaign team played on that resentment, fear and prejudice. The goal, I assume, was to get their base to vote against this world made up of people who were others. It pitted this type of Canadian against that type of Canadian. Harper’s “old stock” comment underlay all this. There are “old stock”, you know, decent, go to church on Sundays, have a nice house, a cottage, two kids, a car, preferably a higher end one, but that all fell apart because it describes Rob Ford. At that last pathetic rally, I kept waiting for Harper to put his arm around Rob Ford and proudly declare into the microphone, Rob’s Old Stock.

It was ugly. It was mean. It played to bigotry. It was shameful. Watching it, I was embarrassed.

And then, yesterday, when I went on Facebook, I saw a clip of Justin Trudeau at an India-Canadian association of Montreal celebration of Indian Independence Day in 2013. He was wearing traditional Kurta clothes. He was dancing the Bhangra with members of the community to Punjabi music. He was obviously having a good time.

it was just an amateur video clip, probably taken on someone’s cell phone. There were no words. No commentary. There didn’t need to be. The message was clear. I wonder, though, if Harper, Kenny, Alexander, and the rest of the Conservative party are capable of hearing it?

Home or House?



Someone asked me what I’ve been doing lately.

I said, “Fixing up my house.” It’s true. I fixed up my office: repairs, paint, new floor, etc. Now, I’m fixing up the laundry room. I’m not planning on selling. I’m just dealing with normal wear and tear. But just down the street is a house for sale. Nice place. The people who bought it and renovated it are asking 995,000. If someone puts twenty percent down and pays all the expenses, taxes with cash, they’ll still have a mortgage of 805,000. If they own 190,000 of the house and the bank owns 805,000, who really owns the house?

Made me think about my house. That’s what we say, isn’t it? My house. But it isn’t really my house.

When I had a mortgage, it was mostly the bank’s house. If I’d sold my house, the bank would have got most of the money. Some of my friends who didn’t have houses thought owning that 1915 house built by a Welsh shipwright meant I was rich. They mixed up debt with assets. I just owed more than them.

My grandparents and my parents were scarred by the Great Depression. My grandparents had their house taken away by the bank. The bank foreclosed. It really didn’t take my grandparent’s house. The bank took back its own house.

The problem is that we all suffer from recency. We think whatever conditions exist will continue to exist. If there is a depression , there will always be a depression. If there are high interest rates, there will always be high interest rates. If house prices are going up, they will always go up.

The longer a trend continues, the more recency is reinforced. Even though housing prices are at absurd levels in Vancouver and Toronto—in Vancouver, a vacant lot can cost two million dollars—people are still buying. Young people are taking out 700,000 dollar mortgages. Are they afraid that house prices could fall twenty percent (140,000)? Their down payment and their equity could be wiped out? No, because, you see, house prices always go up. That’s what the TV shows say.

House prices don’t always go up. House prices crashed in the USA. House prices in Victoria in the 1980s fell so hard that the banks and credit unions had room dividers set up that were covered in pictures of houses they needed to sell. An offer of fifty percent of the mortgage would get you a deal.

House prices in many areas in Canada are starting to slip. Money is still cheap but it isn’t just in Alberta that people are losing their jobs. It doesn’t matter how cheap money is if you are unemployed. Or underemployed. My grandfather always had a job but the railway cut his wages not just once but many times. He was working full time but he no longer could make the monthly payments.

According to Garth Turner’s blog,, house prices in Saskatoon are down 15% from this time last year. 96 houses sold last week. 85 went for below the asking price. Then there is Calgary.

House prices are notoriously sticky. People who have financial problems will keep paying the mortgage as long as possible. They need a place to live. They’ll skimp on other things but they’ll make that payment. When they can’t, they’ll put the house up for sale. They’ll start by asking for a price that’ll get them back the money they’ve paid. If the market isn’t there, they’ll be forced to drop their price so they can give the bank the money they owe. If they don’t get enough money to cover closing costs and the bank debt, they still owe the difference. A lot of people think they can just walk away from a mortgage. Nope, no jingle mail here. You owe 700,000 The house sells for 500,000. You owe 200,000.

Recency. We all suffer from it.

I sold my first house for more than double what I originally paid. My second house I sold for four times what I paid. I wasn’t investing in houses. I just bought a house I needed and then a house I wanted. It seems to prove that house prices always go up. Buy now or buy never. That’s the mantra. Except the assessed value of this present house has slipped every year since I bought it. I’m glad I’m not planning on selling it to provide a pension. I’m glad I don’t have a big mortgage. I’m glad I accidentally made money on the first two houses.

My house. Maybe. In a way, I guess it’s my house. If I pay the strata fee every year. If I pay the taxes every year. If I pay the utilities every year. Stop paying those plus the mortgage and, like my grandfather, I’ll discover whose house it really is.

It’s not just Alberta that is having economic problems. It’s not just low prices for oil and natural gas. Our economy is resource based. We sell oil, gas, ore, lumber, grain, fish. China doesn’t need our natural resources or Australia’s natural resources the way it did. Our oil can’t compete with oil that can be sold for as little as twenty dollars a barrel. You don’t work in any of these areas so you are okay, Jack? No, you are not. There is a business and tax chain that runs right through the country. Oil field workers come from all over the country. Suppliers exist all over the country. They can’t sell their product, they’ll shut their doors. Medicine Hat is already seeing service and supply businesses closing.

My house. I want to feel that it is my house. Although someone else lived here before I did and someone else will live here after I leave. The banks, the credit unions, the mortgage brokers, the real estate agents, the TV hypsters, all say now is the time to buy. Certainly, for them it’s a good time for you to buy. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I grew up too close to the Great Depression. Maybe I’m still influenced by the Great Depression that destroyed so many lives. Maybe house prices always go up. Maybe. Maybe no one will ever have to go through the trauma my grandparent’s went through. I hope so but I wouldn’t bet on it.

(WDV studied economics in university. Theory of Business, Money and Banking, Labour Relations, International Trade but then foolishly went off to write poetry, fiction, and drama.)